Prop 35

Election 2012: Proposition 35

on November 2, 2012

The fight to end sex and labor exploitation in California may affect Richmond differently than other cities — because in Richmond trafficking takes place on the streets and not in fields or sweatshops.

Proposition 35 calls for expanding the definition of human trafficking, increasing penalties and protecting victims. Supporters see it as a step forward in deterring traffickers and defending victims, and opponents see it as a step backward for sex workers and taxpayers.

As in other urban communities, human trafficking in Richmond generally takes the form of forced prostitution. There are two types of workers on the street in Richmond: those who are coerced and those who choose to exchange sexual favors for cash.

Richmond Police Lt. Bisa French said she sees local sex workers from as near as the Iron Triangle and runaways from Washington and beyond who walk 23rd Street in search of the next John. The same people may cross several city and county lines in a single night to meet the demands of their overseers, she said.

“A lot of people see prostitution as a victimless crime,” French said.

But actually, she said, many women — and some men — work under the coercion of pimps, experiencing physical and psychological harm in exchange for often-meager financial gain.

The transient victims, silent patrons and seemingly invisible pimps make human trafficking very difficult to identify and prosecute, French said. It often takes coordinated state, local and federal efforts, and in Richmond, the Police Department works with groups such as the Family Justice Center and Community Violence Solutions to support victims.

This cooperative framework is mirrored in cities throughout the nation, but calls for increased victim protection and criminal accountability led to Prop 35.

While protecting victims and penalizing perpetrators are notions upon which anti-trafficking supporters agree, it is how these measures are to be carried out that has caused a split.

While street workers working under coercion need rescue and restitution, veteran prostitute and founder of the nonprofit Erotic Service Providers Maxine Doogan said she believes that sex workers working by choice deserve equal protection under the law. And rather than directly meeting the needs of trafficking victims, Prop 35 “relies on criminalization of us under the guise of rescuing trafficked victims,” she said.

Doogan said the proposition is attempting to bait voters by using the appeal of rescuing minors, but in practice, arresting sex workers who don’t need to be rescued.

Doogan said that stiffer penalties reflect “lock’em up and throw away the key policies” that will fail to deter traffickers, much like how anti-drug trafficking laws have failed to stop the drug war.

Other opponents such as the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy state in their voter guide that the proposition will “push this inhumane practice further underground. We need collaborative, victim-centered solutions that protect the rights and safety of trafficked victims.”

French said that no matter where you stand on Prop 35, education is vital to protecting communities from the plight of human trafficking.

“We need to educate people — and Johns — on why human trafficking is detrimental to everyone involved,” she said.

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