The California State Capitol building in Sacramento, Calif., on April 18, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
A widely supported bipartisan California bill that would strengthen penalties for child sex traffickers was again in limbo after an Aug. 16 state Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing.
Senate Bill 14—authored by Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), sponsored and co-authored by 60 lawmakers, and targeting those convicted of repeatedly sexually trafficking children—was placed on the suspense file by the 16-member committee awaiting further consideration, which supporters of the bill say is an indirect way to kill it.
“As a proud co-author of SB 14 and the mother of a 10 year old child, it is both terrifying and unacceptable that we are not able to vote on this straightforward bill,” Assemblywoman and Appropriations Committee member Kate Sanchez (R-Rancho Santa Margarita) told The Epoch Times by email on Aug. 17. “Currently in the state of California, trafficking a minor for sex is not considered a serious felony.”
In general, proposals with a cost of $150,000 or more to the state are candidates to be placed on the suspense file—where such bills will be passed or blocked in rapid-fire succession in a twice-a-year, fast-paced hearing with no comments or presentations allowed. The committee will consider these bills, including SB 14, again on Sept. 1, the last day for fiscal committees to meet and pass bills.
However, according to co-author and Assemblywoman Diane Dixon (R-Newport Beach), who also sits on the Appropriations Committee, not all such bills necessarily go through the suspense file, and some might be expedited for a committee vote if deemed as more important or urgent to allow them to be considered on the Assembly floor.
“Subject to the discretionary decision of the committee chair, not all bills that cost $150,000 to the state necessarily go through suspense,” Ms. Dixon told The Epoch Times. “If there’s a high priority, high urgency, the discretion of the chair is to bring those bills forward for an immediate vote.”
She stressed the need for urgent action on SB 14 during the committee hearing and said afterward that she would continue working with Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), the committee chair, and Ms. Grove, the bill’s author, to accelerate the process.
“We need to expedite this. It’s unthinkable that we can’t protect our children from child trafficking,” Ms. Dixon said. “Child traffickers seem to have a higher ranking than child trafficking victims. Why are they making this process so difficult and making the victims go through this?”
California Assemblywoman Diane Dixon (R-Newport Beach) speaks at a press conference where California assemblymembers, law enforcement officials, and local representatives propose to put stricter fentanyl enforcement on the upcoming 2024 ballot, in front of the Capitol in Sacramento on June 6, 2023. (Courtesy of Assembly Republican Caucus)
With the Appropriations Committee concerned with fiscal impacts—including incarceration costs of up to $128,000 per inmate, according to the hearing’s legislative analysis—supporters of the bill suggest that no cost is too high to protect children.
“Are we putting a price tag on these young people’s heads that have been trafficked?” Ms. Dixon asked. “Whatever it costs, and the costs she quoted are not extraordinary, these are manageable costs ... and we can afford to protect our children from child trafficking.”
The author also observed that costs for “the basic services associated with the life-long rehabilitation” of victims and expenditures associated with human trafficking, including mental health care, long-term treatment, and effects on earnings potential, need to be included in the committee’s calculations.
“There is no price tag that can be placed on a victim of human trafficking, especially a child,” Ms. Grove said in a statement
following the committee’s decision. “Selling a child to be raped over and over again is a crime so grotesque, immoral, and barbaric it should be prevented and stopped at any cost.”
Noting an operation in Kern County that uncovered 22 perpetrators caught trafficking children, she said similar crimes are occurring across the state.
California is a hub for human trafficking, with nearly 13,000 cases and more than 24,000 trafficking victims since 2007, according to the legislative analysis.
Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) speaks during a committee hearing in Sacramento on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)
“It’s time we start protecting our children from predators who are lurking online and elsewhere, waiting to take advantage of the most vulnerable people in our communities,” Ms. Grove said in the same statement. “It’s time we call human trafficking what it really is, a serious crime that deserves a serious consequence.”
Supporters of the bill filled the room in the Capitol annex building and ultimately expressed their disappointment with the committee’s decision.
“Everybody knows that the suspense file is where bills go to die,” Tara Thornton, co-founder of Freedom Angels—a human and civil rights group founded by two mothers to protect children, families, and freedom—told The Epoch Times. “It’s where the leadership can determine if they want to kill a bill or not, and they use cost and budget as the grounds to do so.”
Though the tone of the meeting and the outcome have created uncertainty, Ms. Thornton said, the situation only encourages her organization to communicate with and mobilize fellow community members.
“It’s their secret way of killing a bill,” Ms. Thornton said, referring to the bill’s being placed on the suspense file. “It doesn’t mean this bill is dead, but it means we need to keep the pressure on the executive and legislative leadership to protect children at all costs, above all else.”
(L–R) Denise Aguilar, California state Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), and Tara Thornton at the state Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing for a bill targeting child sex traffickers in Sacramento, Calif., on Aug. 16, 2023. Ms. Aguilar and Ms. Thornton are co-founders of Freedom Angels, a human and civil rights group advocating for children, families, and freedom. (Courtesy of Freedom Angels)
Some audience members at the hearing called the committee’s move immoral, saying an opportunity was missed to send a clear message to child traffickers that the state will no longer tolerate such behavior.
“There’s outrage inside the Capitol, and there’s outrage outside the Capitol,” Denise Aguilar, fellow co-founder of Freedom Angels, told The Epoch Times.
Some perceived the chair’s demeanor to be dismissive of the author and trafficking survivors who testified in support.
“It was disgraceful. Why wouldn’t we want to have a robust conversation about the crimes against children that are happening?” Ms. Aguilar said. “It was very disrespectful to the witnesses that were trafficked.”
Before becoming entangled in the Assembly, SB 14 sailed through the Senate without a single no vote, but the Assembly Public Safety Committee halted its forward progress on July 11.
The public backlash was swift, in the form of calls and emails to representatives and a flurry of social media posts from parents and upset citizenry.
Public outrage forced the Legislature to take unprecedented action, and the committee met for a special session two days after blocking the bill and passed it when four Democratic members switched their votes to yes.
California State Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing in Sacramento, Calif., on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)
Ms. Aguilar said the role the public played in reversing the Safety Committee’s decision is a wake-up call to other Californians that when the community comes together, politicians will listen.
“Californians are so done with the extremism of not being represented,” she said. “Everyone I know wants to protect children, we want predators off our streets, and the most important action that Californians can take is to really engage in politics and call their representatives.”
U.S. Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-Calif.) also questioned the fate of the bill in an Aug. 17 post on X
, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
“It appears the [Democratic] supermajority is planning to again kill the bill to make child sex trafficking a serious felony—this time in secret,” Mr. Kiley wrote. “We’ve seen this movie before.”
He noted that similar human trafficking legislation that he introduced in the past while serving as a state assemblymember ultimately failed to clear the suspense file, where this year’s SB 14, he said, can likewise be “summarily killed without discussion on September 1.”