This week New York became the only state in the country to give trafficking survivors special protection to from the taint of a criminal record. Governor David Paterson has signed a bill that enables sex trafficking victims to clear their records of convictions related to coerced prostitution. This means that trafficking survivors seeking to put their lives back together won’t be inhibited by a conviction record when they apply for a job or housing, or try to adjust their immigration status. The bill targets exploited youth, who may be considered trafficking victims under federal law, but under state law, have been charged in criminal court in the vast majority of cases . The law is one step toward acknowledging trafficking survivors as victims of crime and not perpetrators. And it moves conscientiously toward the decriminalization of sex work in general. The advocacy group driving the bill, the Sex Workers Project, toes the delicate line between helping sex workers assert their agency in an illicit industry, moving beyond the standard victim narrative, while at the same time acknowledging the complex risks they face as vulnerable workers in an underground industry. Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project, said in a statement announcing the the signing of the legislation:
Some of our clients, survivors of trafficking into commercial sex, were arrested more than 10 times before escaping their coercive circumstances. Their fears of arrest or deportation prevented them from going to law enforcement for help.
Hopefully, the protective legislation will help bridge the divide between survivors and the criminal justice system. This in turn helps combat trafficking from a human rights-based approach that targets those who really profit from this exploitation. Baskin stated:
It’s a hard reality that trafficked people are often arrested, convicted, and released without the justice system realizing what’s really going on. For these survivors, a criminal record for prostitution is a barrier when they apply for a job, immigration status, or housing. With this landmark legislation, New York has created a model that will help end treatment of these survivors as criminals. We hope the rest of the country follows New York’s leadership.
The social stigma surrounding sex workers, of course, can’t be undone with a single piece of legislation. New York’s criminal justice system has simply tried to ensure that trafficked women’s futures aren’t irrationally marred by their involvement with prostitution. Still, changing society’s attitude toward sex work starts with giving the women at the heart of the industry a chance to move ahead with their lives, without getting held back by the snares of the law.