Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve been asked, in professional and personal settings, to comment on Prop 35, billed as Stop Human Trafficking. I have given this a lot of thought, read the text as well as the Legislative Analyst’s Office take on the proposition, and have come to the conclusion that the right thing to do is to vote NO on 35. This is a punitive, unenforceable measure that masquerades as a victims’ rights proposition, which will do nothing beyond ratcheting up sentences, overenforce laws that already adequately cover the social problem they address, and criminalize behaviors that should not be criminalized.
Let me preface this analysis by saying: Voting NO on 35 does not mean you support human trafficking. It does not mean that the suffering of trafficking victims is not important to you. It does not make you a bad person and it does not make you side with the bad guys. The power of this proposition is by lumping a variety of punitive measures under a headline that carries a huge moral weight. Don’t fall for it.
Here’s what Proposition 35 does:
(1) It greatly enhances the already considerable prison sentences for human trafficking, which would be a very poor deterrent in a world of organized crime. Deterrence in this business is much more likely to be affected by certainty of apprehension. A much better policy would be to improve the quality of police investigations. Granted, the proposition includes provisions for police training on handling complaints, but until this is approached as high-level organized crime, there is little you can do by making the sentences more severe. And, you’re adding more old, sick people to the folks in state institutions whose dysfunctional health care we already finance.
(2) Not a whole lot for victims. The proposition purports to set a fund for victims of trafficking, but the funding source for this is the fines that would supposedly be collected from the people we can’t apprehend. Compare this to Prop 34, which sets up a fund to improve clearance rates for unsolved crime, but there the money comes from the savings that the proposition itself provides. Prop 35 is a money spender, not a money saver. I’m not optimistic about how this would improve victims’ condition at all.
(3) Creates some changes to evidentiary law. This one is really a toss-up. It strikes me that, if you’re prosecuting someone for trafficking in minors, there’s something fundamentally unfair about denying the defendant the defense of being unaware of the minor’s age (granted, you could impose a duty of inquiry.) But even if you think this makes sense – it would actually make the doctrine similar to the one behind statutory rape in various states – you can’t separate this from the bundle of other effects the bill will have, and you are not offered an opportunity to vote separately on this.
(4) Perhaps the worst effect of this: Bizarre, unenforceable additions to the already-cumbersome sex offender registration laws. This has precious little to do with human trafficking or victim protection and does nothing to make us safer, because if this passes, sex offenders will have to report their emails and usernames to authorities. Really? And how are we going to enforce that?
One last comment: Over the last couple of weeks, friends who advocate for sex workers’ unions have told me that virtually all sex worker rights organizations are very strongly opposed to Prop 35. My opposition to the proposition is not based on the same grounds. To be honest, I am undecided about wholesale legalization and regulation of prostitution. As opposed to various other so-called victimless crimes, such as the marijuana market, this industry operates under unique rules. Unionized, co-op sex workers are the tip of the iceberg, and I am much more concerned about the welfare of teenage boys and girls manipulated and coerced into this industry. Criminalizing sex work itself, as such, doesn’t strike me as a particularly great idea, but I think that any debate about pimping should be resolved against pimps. So, with apologies to the sex-positive activist grounds, I’m going to keep my objection to Prop 35 purely on the grounds of excessive, useless punitivism.