Human trafficking is a despicable crime. But Proposition 35 on the Nov. 6 ballot is not the right approach to the problem.
Daphne Phung, founder and executive director of Californians Against Slavery and the major sponsor of Proposition 35, deserves praise for shining a light on human trafficking. Phung believes this form of modern slavery, including forced labor and the sexual exploitation of women and children, is rife in California. But reliable statistics are impossible to find.
Law enforcement agencies do not collect data about trafficking in a consistent manner. There is little agreement on the definition of what constitutes human trafficking.
In its analysis of Proposition 35, the Legislative Analyst's Office stated that as of Oct. 11, 2011, only 16 people were being held in state prison for human trafficking. While that might indicate that current law and enforcement is not strong enough, it could also be an indication that the crime may not be at a crisis level at least not yet.
The proposition would also increase state prison sentences and fines for human trafficking, roughly raising state penalties to federal levels. If that were all it did, it might merit support. But it goes beyond that. To protect victims, the proposition alters the evidence code, making inadmissible evidence of commercial sexual activity of a victim of human trafficking "to prove the victim's criminal liability ..." That seems fair on its face, but some prosecutors worry that the initiative's broad wording will undermine their ability to prosecute traffickers.
Most human trafficking is prosecuted at the federal level because the crime often involves transporting victims over state and international borders. Victims are lured into the sex trade or slavelike conditions in sweatshops to escape poverty, political upheaval and violence in their home countries. Even within the United States, many victims resist rescue for complex reasons involving fear and entrapmen in what might seem to be a lavish lifestyle.
We urge Proposition 35 backers to seek further changes to state law through the Legislature. Gov. Jerry Brown just signed two bills passed this year make it more difficult for human traffickers to hide their assets from being seized. State Attorney General Kamala Harris has focused on this crime since she was San Francisco's district attorney.
Sex trafficking is a repugnant crime that needs to be prevented and punished. State lawmakers have a responsibility to beef up the laws against it and keep them current. We recommend a "no" vote on Proposition 35 while standing firmly against any form of human trafficking.