“Imagine that a young woman is kidnapped as she walks home from work.
Her kidnapper threatens her life and forces her to rob a convenience store. Should she be charged with theft and held legally accountable for her actions?
Put this way, it is clear how absurd it is to criminalize the victim, and yet real people trafficked in the sex trade are regularly tried and convicted in America’s courtrooms. I know, because I’m one of those trafficking victims, and for more than 20 years I have been living an absurd reality in which I am a criminal in the eyes of the law.
Arizona is on the cusp of righting this wrong. Last year, a governor-appointed task force published a report recommending the state improve its trafficking response, stop treating trafficking victims as criminals, and facilitate victims’ services.
It is my hope that Gov. Jan Brewer will continue to push for legislation that addresses the needs identified by the task force.
One priority is shifting the burden of proof in child sex trafficking. Currently, if a perpetrator is caught with a child at least 15 years old, the prosecution must prove the defendant knew the child was under age.
Another priority is vacating convictions when a victim was subjected to force, fraud or coercion that allowed someone to rape, hold hostage and abuse them for another’s monetary gain. I cannot overstate how important this is to empowering a trafficking victim to rebuild her life following unfathomable trauma.
For example, I am required to tell prospective employers about prostitution-related charges filed against me between 1980-83. In Arizona, I am required to do this for 99 years — a life sentence for the “crime” of being a human-trafficking victim.
What isn’t in my record is the story of a naïve 16-year-old runaway who was “befriended” by a trafficker, drugged, robbed, beaten, raped, taken to another state and stripped of my identity. For six years, my life as a trafficked sex slave was a daily oppression involving rape and routine beatings.
My goal was simply to survive, and escape was only a dangerous and far-fetched dream.
Despite being arrested hundreds of times for prostitution-related crimes before I was 21, no one asked if I was a trafficking victim or intervened in any positive way. Even though I was a child, I am identified as an adult in many charges filed against me in my youth because my trafficker forced me to lie about my name and age to everyone, including police.
As a result, today I am classified the same as a pedophile. Though I’ve obtained a degree in social work and launched a career helping women get out of the sex industry, I’ve been fired from and denied jobs because of crime charges that should be considered victimization.
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and the imminent legislative session gives Arizona an opportunity to improve its record on human trafficking. We are behind 43 other states when it comes to anti-trafficking laws.
The human rights organization Polaris Project ranks states based on whether they’ve implemented 12 anti-trafficking laws, and Arizona is considered Tier 3 — with four being the worst. Tier 3 states have “made nominal efforts to pass laws to combat human trafficking, and should take major steps to improve and implement its laws.”
Given the amount of trafficking in Arizona, this is particularly disheartening. It’s time to act, and the task force report gives the Legislature the blueprint for how to do it right.
It’s time to remove the absurdity from an already-horrific situation, destigmatize trafficking victims, stop the life sentencing and provide victims with the compassion and liberties they deserve.
Beth Jacobs of Tucson is the founder of Willow Way, an organization that supports and empowers victims escaping prostitution and sex trafficking.”
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