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Newsom signs child sex trafficking bill that exposed cracks in prison reform efforts

Hannah Wiley, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill Monday that will increase penalties for those convicted of child sex trafficking, a seemingly straightforward measure that instead divided Democrats over how to handle crimes that disproportionately affect women and children.

Senate Bill 14 will reclassify sex trafficking of minors as a "serious" felony, potentially resulting in a life sentence under the state's "three strikes" law, which also applies to crimes such as murder and rape. The measure earned unanimous approval from the 80 members of the state Assembly and the 40-member Senate.

"Human trafficking is a sick crime. With this new law, California is going further to protect kids," Newsom said in a statement after he signed the bill in Sacramento alongside trafficking survivors, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom and SB 14's author, state Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield.

"With the passage of this bill, we are sending a clear message to child traffickers — we intend to put you out of business and behind bars where you belong," said Grove, who worked on the issue for years.

Despite its eventual passage, Democratic concerns over whether victims would be vulnerable to prosecution and whether three strikes should be broadened nearly tanked SB 14, leading to a public relations nightmare for the majority party and a rare Republican victory in the state Capitol.

The controversy also revealed cracks in the criminal justice reform movement over not just human trafficking but other crimes such as domestic violence and certain sexual assaults — politically sticky issues for Democrats who have touted policies supporting women but resisted efforts to increase the prison population.


"I think the resistance is healthy. When we're talking about adding prison time, adding crimes, we ought to be thinking long and hard about it," said Maggy Krell, a prosecutor who specializes in human trafficking.

But, Krell added, "we're talking really about gender-based violence here. We're talking about crimes that disproportionately impact women and children, and women and children of color."

Lawmakers this year also disagreed over a bill to lengthen prison terms for those convicted of domestic violence and another that would have eliminated a requirement for healthcare providers to report assault and abuse to law enforcement. Both measures failed. The Legislature in recent years has also fought over adding a penalty for removing a condom without consent and the repeal of an anti-loitering law that largely affected sex workers.

"California leads the way in many things. But we don't lead the way in women leadership," said state Sen. Marie Alvarado-Gil, a moderate Democrat from Amador County who authored a bill this year to make rape of an intoxicated person a "violent felony" subject to three strikes sentence enhancements. Alvarado-Gil held the bill over concerns it could face resistance similar to SB 14.


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