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North Coast Current

News online for Encinitas, Calif.

North Coast Current

News online for Encinitas, Calif.

North Coast Current

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California sex-trafficking bill progresses after tumultuous week

The California Capitol is pictured in April 2022. (Photo by Josh Hild via Unsplash)

A bill to increase penalties for trafficking of children had a wild coaster ride this week in Sacramento.

It was an on again, off again, on again trip through the state legislature, which attracted attention statewide and nationally because of the subject matter and how the drama played out in a 72-hour period.

Ultimately, Senate Bill 14 cleared the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee 6-0, with two abstentions, on Thursday, July 13.

The bottom line is state SB-14 was thought to be dead for the year as lawmakers approached a deadline to pass their bills out of policy committees. The bill’s author, Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), said she was shocked when the bill was initially rejected.

Shannon Grove
Shannon Grove

It was revived through the outcry of the state’s Republican Party and intervention from Gov. Gavin Newsom and Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister). Added to this pressure were hundreds of activist organizations and law enforcement members involved in anti-trafficking efforts across California.

It’s safe to say they collectively were upset by the rejection of the bill. This prompted a last-minute committee meeting that allowed the bill to move forward.

This all began Tuesday, July 11, as the California Assembly was heading to its summer break and its Public Safety Committee had an extensive list of bills to either send on, hold or kill. What is often a routine process was anything but when the time came to discuss a bill aimed at stemming human trafficking of children.

It had been expected to sail through the committee, but all six Democrats chose not to vote on it, and a firestorm of anger and disbelief followed.

Grove said “things started moving and changing” soon after the committee vote and continued into the next day.

“It’s been very fluid,” she said.

Within 24 hours of the rejection of SB-14, the governor was questioning the wisdom of the committee’s rejection. He was surprised by the action and told reporters he had spoken to Grove and expressed his appreciation to her and indicated his strong support for the bill. He wondered how a bill that passed out of the Senate side unanimously with widespread support across California was rejected by a committee on the Assembly side.

At the committee hearing, Grove spoke with emotion when she argued for the passage of her bill. Her legislation would make the three-strikes law apply to anyone who has been found guilty multiple times of trafficking anyone under 17 years old. The offender would be eligible for a third strike, which means the trafficker could face a lifetime prison sentence.

“While I know this committee is about addressing prison overcrowding and not adding enhancements to the law, I hope we can agree today that repeatedly selling minor children for sex, forcing them to be raped over and over and over again every single, day should be considered a serious felony in California,” she said. “Instead of using prison overcrowding as a means to protect men who are perpetrating this high crime, shouldn’t we be protecting the daughters who are victims of these crimes?”

The committee appeared opposed to the bill over concerns of increasing prison sentences for minority men. What resulted was a tense confrontation between the senator and the committee chairman, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles).

He told Grove that the bill might have cleared the committee if she had been willing to work with his office. The senator tried to interrupt him, but he shushed her. Sources within the senator’s office said they had tried to connect with Jones-Sawyer several times but to no avail. He claimed otherwise.

Those bad feelings apparently boiled over to the next day, with Grove saying at her press conference that she met with Jones-Sawyer, but no progress was made. Jones-Sawyer told the media that some of his questions were answered during that same Wednesday meeting with Grove.

When asked after the meeting if she was hoping that Republicans and Democrats in the Assembly could force a floor vote on her bill, bypassing Jones-Sawyer and the committee, Grove said, “I would hope that wouldn’t be necessary, but if that is necessary, then that’s an option.”

Several times, reporters at her press conference the day after the Assembly vote inquired if she would consider dropping the three-strike provision of the bill. She detailed how her team had checked with several district attorneys and their own legal counsel to advise her on the bill.

“You can’t amend the code to do that,” she said. And besides, she added, “You’re talking about a repeat offender” who sells children for sex, and was anybody willing to “stand up and say that the three strikes law shouldn’t apply here?”

When she was testifying at the committee hearing, Grove described how a human trafficker who was found guilty of selling a “15-year-old girl from Orange County and was sentenced to eight years was released after serving less than four.”

The same pimp moved to Bakersfield and was again arrested for exploiting three minors, ages 14-20. He was found guilty on trafficking, child pornography, gun and drug charges.

Grove argued that the current system with opportunities for reduction in time served emboldens traffickers whose prison time doesn’t reflect the severity of their crimes. SB-14 would have a trafficker thinking twice about kidnapping, raping and selling children, she said.

Speaking in support of the bill was former Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Bock, who helped draft the bill. She has years of experience working with trafficking survivors and the justice system.

Bock told the committee that “these girls are ATM machines” and need protection.

Most of the children being trafficked are minorities, and the problem is getting worse, not better, and she argued that something needs to be done sooner rather than later. Bock pointed to recent media stories about the increase in kidnapping of Black girls. Last month, CBS in the Bay Area published a story, “Kidnapping fears haunt Black girls,” reporting that “27 nonprofits in Oakland echo their concern” and called it a state of emergency.

Two survivors spoke, both Black women: April Grayson, who opposed the bill, and Odessa Perkins, who supported it.

Perkins, who said she is a victim, said the crime starts at a young age. She herself was groomed at a young age, then touched, then trafficked. She said she hopes to give a voice to the voiceless, as does Grayson, and believes the bill would be a valuable tool against pimps.

Grayson didn’t agree and brought the perspective of a survivor who doesn’t trust the system to do the right thing. She served 17 years in prison unjustly, she said, and other speakers also spoke of her unfair treatment as a victim of trafficking. Grayson now advocates for raising awareness of the unfair sentencing and criminalization of young women and girls.

Bock spoke to Grayson directly at the hearing, telling her the time she served was unjust, but the system has made progress in the years since her ordeal, and that it’s better but not perfect by any means. The new law will help, Bock said.

When it came time to vote on the bill again, two Republicans and four Democrats on the Public Safety Committee voted in favor of SB-14. Assemblywoman Mia Bonta (D-Oakland), wife of California Attorney General Rob Bonta, and Assemblyman Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) did not vote on the measure. Criminal justice reform advocates still oppose the bill.

J.W. August is a longtime San Diego broadcast and digital journalist.