Rutherford: Survivors of human trafficking are not criminals

 In Amara In The News

by Sakala Rutherford

Original Article on the Roanoke Times:

The criminal justice system in Virginia continues to work against the interests of survivors of sex trafficking. Human trafficking is an enduring problem in Virginia that cannot be ignored: from 2007 to 2019, 1,424 cases of human trafficking were identified in Virginia by the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Traffickers often use violent and coercive means to force victims to break the law. As a result, their victims are often charged with prostitution or related charges, facing steep legal fines or even jail time. Moreover, survivors face tremendous challenges once they have escaped their past and are ready to restart their lives. The punitive forces of the criminal justice system stretch far beyond the prison walls, the shadows of their past making it difficult for them to obtain steady employment, stable housing, and access to education.

Relief for trafficking survivors is a racial justice issue. As a result of deep-rooted systemic racism, Black and Latino communities are more likely to be targeted by traffickers and more likely to be convicted of crimes related to their trafficking. Fortunately, Gov. Northam has the opportunity to change this by signing HB 2133 and HB 2234 into law.

The Virginia General Assembly has unanimously passed HB 2133 and HB 2234. House Bill 2133 allows survivors’ convictions related to their trafficking to be vacated and expunged from their record, which would allow survivors to secure employment and education, and access other resources. Criminal record relief would allow survivors to relieve themselves of the stigma of being labeled a criminal for crimes they were forced to commit.

Additionally, House Bill 2234 enables survivors to raise an affirmative defense during their prosecution alleging that they were forced by their trafficker to commit the crimes with which they are charged. This will work to prevent them from receiving new or additional criminal charges. Additionally, defense attorneys will be in a much better position to refer these survivors to the services necessary for healing and rebuilding their lives.

We need to act now to combat the oppressive and antiquated forces of our legal system. Virginia is behind every state in the country when offering legal support to victims that were charged with crimes they were forced to commit. In the United States, 45 states have already passed criminal record relief laws for trafficking survivors. Moreover, of the five states left to pass these laws, four of them have passed legislation allowing victims to raise an affirmative defense. Virginia has the opportunity to join the rest of the nation in providing trafficking survivors opportunities for relief. Accordingly, we are requesting Gov. Northam to sign HB 2133 and HB 2234 to reverse this injustice, protect survivors, and help them regain control of their lives.

Sakala Rutherford is the president of the board of directors of the Amara Legal Center, a DC-based nonprofit that provides free legal representation to individuals impacted by sex trafficking or involved in sex work in the DC-metro area.

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