November 4, 2012

California's Prop 35: Targeting the Wrong People for the Wrong Reasons

11-4-2012 California:

California voters hold the power this Election Day to decide if many thousands of people convicted of prostitution-related offenses in their state must now register as sex offenders. These are their neighbors, their friends, their family—whether they know it or not—and many are women: trans- and cisgender women, poor and working class women, and disproportionately, they are women of color.
This attack on women already made vulnerable to violence and poverty is just one of the possible consequences of Proposition 35, a ballot initiative marketed to voters as a tough law to fight trafficking but is instead a “tough on crime” measure backed with millions of dollars from one influential donor, written by a community activist with little experience in the issue. If it passes? 
Advocates for survivors of trafficking, civil rights attorneys, and sex workers fear that rather than protect Californians, it will expose their communities to increased police surveillance, arrest, and the possibility of being labeled a "sex offender" for the rest of their lives.
Trafficking is a hot-button issue, where even defining what is meant by the term is contentious and deeply politicized—but at a minimum, it describes forced labor, where the force may be physical or psychological in nature. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that nearly 22 million people may be involved in forced labor worldwide, the majority of which does not involve forced labor in the sex trade. In the United States, anti-trafficking law developed over the last ten years has advanced definitions of trafficking. In addition to Federal law, states have passed their own trafficking laws, which overlap with existing laws against forced labor, child labor, minor prostitution, or prostitution in general.
A good deal of advocacy around trafficking is concerned with proposing new laws, with several organizations—such as the Polaris Project and Shared Hope International—focused on introducing copycat legislation state-after-state, focused on increasing criminal penalties associated with trafficking and moving resources to law enforcement. There is little evidence that strengthening criminal penalties and relying primarily on law enforcement are strategies to end forced labor; in fact, advocates who work with survivors of trafficking, as well as people involved in the sex trade and sex worker rights' advocates, have documented the limitations and dangers of a “tough on crime” approach on trafficking. Still, the “tough on crime” approach has become dominant in what some anti-trafficking advocates now call “the war on trafficking.”
Treating Those In the Sex Trade as Sex Offenders
Proposition 35 adds to this dangerous mix: the overlapping matrix of laws concerning trafficking, the increasingly common conflation of commercial sex with trafficking found in these laws, and the concerns of rights' advocates. If passed, Prop 35 will create more severe criminal penalties for what it describes as "sexual exploitation"—a potentially far-reaching term that can include any kind of commercial sex, whether or not force, fraud or coercion was present.
Under Prop 35, anyone involved in the sex trade could potentially be viewed as being involved in trafficking, and could face all of the criminal penalties associated with this redefinition of who is involved in “trafficking,” which include fines of between $500,000 and $1 million and prison sentences ranging from five years to life. This is in addition to having to register as a sex offender, and surrender to lifelong internet monitoring: that is, turning over all of one's "internet identifiers," which includes "any electronic mail address, user name, screen name, or similar identifier used for the purpose of Internet forum discussions, Internet chat room discussion, instant messaging, social networking, or similar Internet communication."
Advocates say Prop 35's conflation of the sex trade with trafficking will not only endanger people in the sex trade, but it will also fail survivors of trafficking. "I think trafficking is very much premised on issues of forced labor – be it forced work, be it forced sexual services," said Cindy Liou, a staff attorney at Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, which works with hundreds of survivors of human trafficking.
"Even the division between forced labor and sex work feel extraneous," she explains. "Our forced labor cases may involve sexual assault, or we may have cases where a client isn't forced to prostitute herself for money, but is forced to commit sexual acts for noncommercial means – [under Prop 35] that would no longer be considered 'forced work.' That said, to confuse prostitution with trafficking is not appropriate, they are separate crimes, and they effect people in different ways. That's the whole point why they are different crimes."
If passed, Proposition 35 could also require anyone in California convicted of some prostitution-related offenses as far back as 1944 to also register as a sex offender and submit to lifelong internet monitoring. This is what drove Naomi Akers, the Executive Director of St. James Infirmary, an occupational health and safety clinic run by and for sex workers in San Francisco, to come out hard against the bill. In a Facebook image that spread quickly through sex worker communities online, Akers wrote "I have a previous conviction for 647a" – that is, lewd conduct, one of several common charges brought by California law enforcement against sex workers – "when I was a prostitute on the streets and if Prop 35 passes, I will be be required to register as a sex offender."
....continued.... by Melissa Gira Grant, RH Reality Check

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