The California State Capitol building in Sacramento on April 18, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Following lengthy debate in the Legislature, the California Assembly passed a child sex trafficking bill Sept. 11, and the Senate concurred two days later, putting the bill one step closer to becoming law.
Senate Bill 14
, authored by Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), makes child sex trafficking a serious felony and increases penalties for repeat offenders by making the offense a strike under the state’s three-strike system.
“Today is a huge victory for every survivor who has shared their story in hopes of making a change with Senate Bill 14,” Ms. Grove said in a statement emailed to The Epoch Times Sept. 13. “With the passage of this bill, we are sending a clear message to repeat child traffickers—we intend to put you out of business and into prison.”
The bill lacks only Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature to become law, due by Oct. 14.
A post from the governor following the Assembly’s passage on X—formerly known as Twitter—which said, “Good to see,” was interpreted by some that the bill will be signed.
Lawmakers mentioned the governor’s post when discussing the bill on the Senate floor before passing the measure with a unanimous vote and sending it to his desk.
California State Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, speaks during an Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing in Sacramento on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)
Statements from legislators on both sides of the aisle thanked the bill’s author and 64 co-authors in both houses for their determination in seeing the bill through, with one suggesting such legislation should have been passed long ago.
“This is one of those pieces of legislation I wish I never had to vote on because it should have happened before I got here,” Sen. Marie Alvarado-Gil (D-Modesto) told colleagues while requesting support for the measure.
After being introduced earlier this year, the bill sailed through the Senate with bipartisan support before the Assembly Public Safety Committee stalled it when Chair Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) and other Democratic members of the committee chose to not vote.
California State Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing in Sacramento, Calif., on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)
Public outrage immediately ensued, with calls to lawmakers and posts on social media demanding action, and the governor reacting with comments indicating he was working behind the scenes.
“I talked to Senator Grove about it … which is indicative of my desire to see what we can do,” Mr. Newsom told reporters after the public safety hearing. “I take it very seriously, and we’ll be following up and will have something to say about it soon.”
Constituents and lawmakers repeatedly expressed gratitude for the governor’s leadership in pushing the measure forward after it initially failed, with pressure from his administration and the public leading to a quick reversal of fate for the bill.
Two days after killing the measure, what was described as an unprecedented reconsideration hearing was held, with all but two Democrats—Assemblymembers Mia Bonta (D-Oakland) and Isaac Bryan (D-Culver City)—changing their vote to yes, allowing the bill to pass.
Seeking to address complaints that his actions as chair stalled the bill, Mr. Jones-Sawyer told lawmakers that his decisions, instead, saved the measure.
“By abstaining from voting on SB 14, and granting reconsideration for the bill, it was kept alive,” he said to the Assembly Sept. 11.
California State Assembly Public Safety Committee Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, speaks during a committee hearing in Sacramento on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)
Debate on the Assembly floor was lengthy and contentious, with 15 members raising their microphones to speak up on the matter, though it ultimately resulted in a 79 to 0 vote.
Mr. Bryan asserted that existing law already allows prosecutors to sentence child traffickers to life in prison and that victims are being sentenced to lengthy sentences due to lack of protections.
“This conversation over SB 14 wasn’t whether child trafficking is serious. Of course, it’s serious; so serious you can go to prison for life right now without this bill,” he said on the Assembly floor. “This conversation was whether we should willingly re-open three strikes for the first time in a decade without the necessary safeguards to ensure that trafficking victims and survivors can’t be sentenced themselves to 25 to life, as often happens in these prosecutions where victims are leveraged, criminalized, exploited through the criminal legal system.”
Former Riverside County prosecutor, Assemblyman Bill Essayli (R-Riverside) took exception to the remarks and countered by informing the floor of current legal guidelines for sentencing sex traffickers and demanding proof that victims of such are currently imprisoned.
“You cannot currently go to jail for life for sex trafficking,” he said. “Tell me one victim that is sitting in prison right now. Name one. You guys say this stuff, but it’s not true.”
Assemblyman Bill Essayli speaks at a press conference outside the California state Capitol in Sacramento on Aug. 14, 2023. (Courtesy of California Family Council)
Another lawmaker quickly rose to object to statements that victims were not protected by existing law or in the language of the bill before amendments were applied.
“From the very beginning, the author and other people made it clear in committee and elsewhere that current law already protects victims and ensures that if you are a victim of human trafficking, you have a defense,” Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Yuba City) said. “We’re not going to state things that aren’t true on this floor.”
Several legislators mentioned the difficulty of passing legislation through the public safety committee—with the bill accounting for the lone measure increasing penalties to reach the Assembly floor in at least nine years—suggesting that democratic functions are potentially stifled by a handful of committee members.
“People have been trying to make this a serious felony for years, and every time it gets stopped in the Public Safety Committee,” Mr. Gallagher said. “It’s something we have to change in this body, that we allow one person or a very small amount of people to overrule the will of the majority.”
Following the bill’s passage, Ms. Bonta released a statement declaring her intent to introduce legislation next year to address what she says will help strengthen victim protections, but no other details were provided.
“Specifically, my concern with any policy on this topic is ensuring that victims of human trafficking are treated as such and not just viewed as perpetrators,” she wrote in a statement
posted on X Sept. 11.
California Assembly member Mia Bonta speaks at a "Just Majority" nationwide bus tour press conference to call for reforms to the U.S. Supreme Court in Sacramento, Calif., on May 16, 2023. (Kimberly White/Getty Images for Demand Justice)
Though she did not vote for the bill in the safety committee, Ms. Bonta did vote for the measure on the Assembly floor.
“While there are still outstanding issues with this bill, including addressing three strikes policy and its contribution to mass incarceration, now is the time to center victims and survivors,” she said.
In remarks to reporters after the bill passed the Senate, the author noted that survivors were involved and integral to the entire legislative process and looked forward to seeing how Ms. Bonta’s proposal would play a role in stopping child sex trafficking.
“This bill was survivor-led. The opposition says survivors were not a part of this,” Ms. Grove said. “I’m excited that this bill inspired her to introduce legislation and do something about it, finally.”