By the time she was 19, Ashley Dickerson’s body had already made money for several men.
She ran away from home at 13 and was soon having sex for money. From time to time, she considered trying something else. But the men controlling Dickerson felt like family, she said, and she wasn’t sure what else to do.
“You sort of lose track and think you make choices on your own, not realizing the abuse you went through,” said Dickerson, who is now 31. “The problem with having no options, no job skills and a criminal record is you have nothing to do.”
Finally she fled. She went to work, had a client drive her to the train station, and never returned. Since then, Dickerson has gone back to school and graduated with her medical assistant’s degree. But the life she entered as an adolescent still shadows her. She couldn’t go into nursing, she said, because a background that includes prostitution charges “kind of prohibits me.”
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“It really doesn’t look good to an employer or a school,” Dickerson said. If she could erase that record, “that’s like opening a door to a new life. That’s like being able to start over.”
Human trafficking is experiencing its moment in the political spotlight. Public officials unanimously condemn the practice as abhorrent and widespread, and thanks in large part to a concerted advocacy campaign, they increasingly view many sex workers as trafficking victims.
“I think the last time we’ve had this kind of emergency was when we had the crack-cocaine epidemic,” Assemblyman Reggie-Jones Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, said during a recent hearing on the issue.
When the deadline to submit new legislation arrived Feb. 19, lawmakers had submitted at least 20 bills tackling the issue. Some stiffen penalties on traffickers or purchasers; some seek to aid victims; some require posting public information or better training people to recognize the signs of trafficking.
One prong of the policy response has been tougher penalties and enhanced tools to help prosecutors bring cases against traffickers. Paralleling that is a growing movement to treat people who have been trafficked as victims and to shift from criminal penalties to rehabilitation.
Although law enforcement officials say the move toward recognizing victims has been developing for years, bills introduced this year would go further than before by offering victims immunity from crimes and the ability to clear their records – not just for sex work but for a range of offenses, from theft to drug dealing, that they committed at the behest of the person controlling them.
Few people question the notion of helping the victimized. But law enforcement has reacted warily to the idea of giving broad amnesty for trafficking-related crimes. Former sex workers and advocates worry that the intense focus on catching traffickers endangers sex workers already struggling on the jagged edge of society.
(Removing penalties for trafficking victims) just opens up the door for traffickers to use these kids to commit crimes and exploit them even worse.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley
“So many of the laws they’re passing are almost these knee-jerk reactions without actually gathering the information and studying the situation,” said Kristen DiAngelo of the Sex Workers Outreach Project’s Sacramento branch. “When you do that, there’s a large amount of what I call collateral damage.”
Though the phrase “human trafficking” may evoke sex work, experts note that labor trafficking also enslaves people across the economy. “It’s crazy, the industries that it’s touching,” said Stephanie Richard of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, citing workers in hotels, farm fields, nail salons and even Christmas tree farms. Often, victims are in plain sight.
“When someone is working in a restaurant or cleaning a hotel or working construction, you don’t drive by and say, ‘That person must be enslaved,’ ” said FBI Special Agent Rebekah Bills, who works trafficking cases out of the agency’s Sacramento bureau.
Laborers will often be lured by the promise of work but end up as virtual indentured servants. Many are immigrants living or working in the country illegally, living in constant fear of being turned over to authorities and deported.
Policymakers are proposing bills to treat those who are trafficked as victims and shield them from legal consequences.
The consensus view holds that no minor voluntarily sells his or her body, and sex with a minor can be prosecuted as statutory rape.
“There’s an assumption that has to be made that they’re a victim,” said California Deputy Attorney General Maggy Krell. “The law treats minors very differently from adults under these circumstances.”
Many people who are trafficked live under the threat of violence that makes them unable to refuse when they’re pushed to commit other crimes.
“You don’t have a lot of ability to say what you will and won’t do when you’re being trafficked,” said Terri Galvan, executive director of an Elk Grove safe house called Community Against Sexual Harm.
In addition to the threats and the brutality, sex workers face a more insidious form of psychological bondage in which they come to love their traffickers and compete for approval. Many succumb to economic desperation.
“We go back to the same people who victimize us because there’s nowhere to go,” said a woman who wants to be known only as Miss Lady and said she started working the streets at 15. She had a blood-soaked eye from where she said her latest pimp had struck her. “These girls, they’re not criminals,” she added. “They’re just trying to find someone to love them.”
Growing recognition of those circumstances has produced bills allowing people who have been trafficked to clear their records retroactively or to avoid charges in the first place.
“There ought to be some immunity if (verifiably) you’re a victim and forced to do certain acts,” said Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, whose Assembly Bill 1760 would grant minors immunity from prostitution charges.
Legislation by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, would let victims protect themselves with what’s called an “affirmative defense.” If they can prove they were being trafficked, they can avoid charges.
“They’ve already been traumatized; they’ve already been victimized,” Weber said. “So the question becomes, are we going to continue to victimize them?”
It will be difficult to sway law enforcement. The bill hinges on a question of culpability, of where free will ends and forced action begins.
“It’s really going to come down to those circumstances: Yes, you were being trafficked, but your pimp or trafficker, did they tell you to rob that person? Or was it that you went and did that on your own to try and make some money to perhaps get you out of that situation you were in?” said Sean Hoffman of the California District Attorneys Association.
Others worry that removing criminal penalties would backfire and empower traffickers, giving them cover to have their charges flout the law. Paul Durenberger, an assistant chief district attorney in Sacramento County who oversees human trafficking cases, called them “bills that a trafficker would want to write to protect themselves.”
“It just opens up the door for traffickers to use these kids to commit crimes and exploit them even worse,” said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, widely seen as a leader on the issue of human trafficking.
Current laws still support a framework where both adult and child human trafficking victims are identified and treated as criminals.
Stephanie Richard, Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking
Some programs already are working to offer leniency to minors. A court for sexually exploited children in Sacramento diverts minors from juvenile hall to a treatment program that allows those who have been trafficked or are at risk to clear an array of charges if they complete the program.
“Steal a car, robbery, get into a fight, anything – rarely does our district attorney charge prostitution” for minors who have been trafficked or are at risk, said Karol Kutz, a Sacramento County public defender who helps run the program. “I think it’s headed in the right direction.”
It’s murkier for older sex workers. For them, the law requires proving some combination of force, fraud or coercion, which can be difficult to pin down.
“Are they in control of themselves? What are the circumstances of the situation they’re in, and could they not be in it if they don’t want to be in it?” are the fundamental questions for investigators, Bills said, and answering them requires gradually drawing a person out and building trust.
Law enforcement officials say they have made fewer strides in treating adults differently than minors.
“That is still a work in progress,” Durenberger said, adding that many adult sex workers “have been in this life since they were a teenager.”
Advocates for sex workers worry that adults will suffer the fallout from widening anti-trafficking sweeps and crackdowns on “johns” who solicit sex.
“Despite the growing recognition to the contrary, current laws still support a framework where both adult and child human trafficking victims are identified and treated as criminals,” said Richard, who in an earlier hearing warned lawmakers that “many adult women in prostitution are now being arrested or are more at risk because of a lot of the voices in the anti-trafficking movement.”
Some activists, academics and attorneys believe the severity of the problem has been greatly exaggerated to score political points and bolster law enforcement budgets.
“There are a number of folks who are very worried about what seems to be a deliberate, perhaps political attempt to conflate trafficking and prostitution,” said Jerald Mosley, a former California Department of Justice official.
Sex workers are seeing the consequences, both trafficked victims and consensual workers who are desperate to secure food and shelter, DiAngelo said. She warned efforts to crack down on sex-buying “johns” puts women at risk by forcing them into the shadows and argued the state has done little to get people services to keep them off the street.
“Once someone sees a prostitution arrest on someone’s record, they’re done. They’re over,” DiAngelo said, and for trafficking victims, “we have nothing for them. All we want is for them to report their trafficker, their abuser, so we can put them in jail and dump (the victims) back on the street. The idea of services often looks like a few counseling sessions and drug treatment.”
Federal and state officials strongly rebut the idea that they are indiscriminately sweeping people up. Those in areas with dedicated anti-trafficking programs say they are diligent about identifying victims during raids, bringing advocates along.
Some women are cited during enforcement sweeps, said Sacramento police Detective Kristine Morse, who serves on a human-trafficking task force with the FBI. But all are offered services like food, housing assistance and an adult rehabilitation court.
“We’re not ignoring the possibility there is victimization present,” Morse said. “We’re not out to get them. We’re out to offer services for people willing to take them.”
Few are. Many refuse, bound by ties to the person controlling them or driven away by deep distrust of authorities. But cops and prosecutors argue that law enforcement will always be on the front line of identifying victims and getting them help. An arrest can start that process.
“It is illegal still to engage in commercial sex, so sometimes with adults that is the arrest and then we hear what’s going on,” O’Malley said.
Dickerson didn’t mind telling her story. But she wishes she could leave the tale behind.
“People need to understand,” Dickerson said, “victims have rights, and they shouldn’t be penalized for things they were doing that they weren’t doing of their own free will.”