For a state that often finds itself in ferocious debate over ballot initiatives, California is quite solidly behind Proposition 35. If Prop 35 passes on Tuesday, the state will raise the punishment for sex trafficking of a minor with force or fraud to as high as a life sentence. The current maximum is eight years. The fines for trafficking would also increase and pay for services that help victims; all convicted sex traffickers would have to register as sex offenders too.
The FBI says California is a major hub for trafficking, and, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, more gangs are using forced prostitution instead of selling drugs as a revenue source. Contrary to popular belief, many of the victims are native Californians, not foreigners. “You see more girls out on the street,” says Lieutenant Andre Dawson, who is in charge of the LAPD’s human-trafficking unit. “I think Proposition 35 is right on the ball,” says Marie, a trafficking survivor. “These pimps will be more scared to confront girls, and it would help the girls have a voice.”
Marie, who is now pursuing a college degree, agreed to speak with TIME on the condition that her real name not be used. She was made available to TIME through an organization that helps women who want to escape the clutches of sex-trafficking gangs. She says the law is important because young women don’t know what recourse they have. She speaks from painful experience. Despite seven years of violent, forced prostitution, Marie says she couldn’t bring herself to rat out her pimps. In a twisted way, she recalls, they offered her a form of love and protection she couldn’t get from her family. And when the pimps got more violent, beating her and forcing her to have sex on a daily basis, she became too afraid to speak out. “Your pimp might be beating you in the passenger seat of the car when the police pull you over,” says Marie, who met her first pimp when she was 14. “You always say you’re fine.”
Still, despite stories from victims like Marie and the firm backing of law enforcement and major politicians, Prop 35 has its detractors. Some people who have spent decades working to protect victims say that while it is well intentioned, the measure may not make things better. First, the funds from the fines imposed on criminals would go to law enforcement and organizations that provide services for victims, not directly to the survivors themselves. That’s helpful, but opponents say victims should be directly restituted for their labor. “All the money that comes from a trafficking case should go where it belongs: directly into the hands of the person who survived that exploitation,” declared Annie Fukushima, a lecturer on women and gender studies at San Francisco State University, on a “No on Proposition 35” blog. In any case, says Lois Lee, who runs a Los Angeles nonprofit that rescues victims of child sex trafficking, it would merely be “blowing smoke” to increase fines on criminals because it’s usually too hard to locate their assets.
Opponents also take issue with a proposed change that would make it impossible to use evidence that victims engaged in a commercial sexual act to prove their criminal liability. While that may sound beneficial, some experts point out that prosecuting victims as prostitutes can actually help law enforcement rescue them — and charge their traffickers. “When you rescue these kids from the pimps, they love these guys,” Lee says. “They’re not going to testify against their boyfriends. The only reason they’re testifying now is that they’re afraid to go to jail if they don’t.” Another clause of Prop 35 would prevent the use of the past sexual histories of victims. In an op-ed for U-T San Diego, Ami Carpenter, an assistant professor at the University of San Diego, argued that most victims do not admit that they are exploited until detectives question their accounts and bring up past history of commercial sex acts.
The Los Angeles Times urged a no vote on the initiative as well, arguing that increasing penalties for traffickers won’t encourage more victims to come forward. “By that logic, victims would already have an incentive to seek federal help, because federal law imposes harsh penalties,” the Times said. “Yet that’s hardly the case.” The paper also said longer prison terms wouldn’t deter criminals from trafficking. Finally, detractors like Kathleen Kim, a professor at Loyola Law School who co-authored California’s current trafficking law, say the proposal belittles victims of nonsexual forced labor because it would give harsher prison terms for human trafficking of a sexual nature than for other forms of trafficking.
John Vanek, a retired police lieutenant who managed the human-trafficking task force at the San Jose Police Department, says most Californians don’t know about the problematic details of the measure because few people are willing to speak out against an emotional proposal that deals with such a clearly horrific crime. “Some organizations won’t oppose this because it will hurt their reputations,” he says. Lee adds, “Proposition 35 is do-gooder legislation with no regard to the social impact of the child who is recruited by pimps.”
Chris Kelly, Facebook’s former privacy chief who is backing the proposition with more than $2 million, says opponents don’t know what they’re talking about. He says the proposal answers California’s need for a comprehensive trafficking law that brings state laws up to federal standards, making it easier for prosecutors in California to go after traffickers rather than sending cases to the feds. Changes are also needed, he says, because current law emphasizes victims brought from other countries over “homegrown recruitment.” He cites a report by antitrafficking group Shared Hope International that gave California an F grade on its trafficking laws. The analysis said the state provides limited options for prosecutors and little protection for victims. “Having a comprehensive, victim-centered approach will allow California to go from worst to first,” Kelly tells TIME.
The yes campaign also backs up its argument by pointing out that many experts are on its side. Alameda County prosecutor Sharmin Bock helped draft the measure, while a long list of advocacy, community and faith organizations are listed as supporters on the campaign’s website. “The people in the trenches back this law,” Bock says. Dianne Amato of the Los Angeles–based Mary Magdalene Project, which helps women who are victims of trafficking, is one of them. “It may not be the perfect proposition but I think it’s needed,” she says. “There has to be more deterrent, more bite against trafficking at a younger age.”