Failure of Child Sex Trafficking Bill in California Assembly Committee Sparks Outrage

Failure of Child Sex Trafficking Bill in California Assembly Committee Sparks Outrage

The California State Capitol building in Sacramento, Calif., on April 18, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Travis Gillmore

Travis Gillmore

7/12/2023

Updated: 12/30/2023

A bill to strengthen penalties for repeat offenders convicted of sexually trafficking children failed to pass the Assembly Public Safety Committee July 11, with only the two Republican members voting in favor of the measure.
Authored by Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), Senate Bill 14 passed the Senate earlier this year with unanimous bipartisan support and would have added repeat sexual trafficking of a minor to the state’s list of “serious” felonies, making the crime a strikeable offense under California’s Three Strikes law—passed in 1994 and mandating sentences of 25 years to life for those convicted with three strikes.
“I am profoundly disappointed that committee Democrats couldn’t bring themselves to support the bill, with their stubborn and misguided objection to any penalty increase regardless of how heinous the crime,” Ms. Grove told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement. “Human trafficking of children is a growing tragedy that disproportionately targets minority girls, and California is a hotbed because of our lenient penalties.”
Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, speaks during a committee hearing in Sacramento on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, speaks during a committee hearing in Sacramento on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

Chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) opposed the bill on the grounds that it would exacerbate lengthy prison sentences and contribute to a “failing” criminal justice system.
“The Three Strikes model of sentencing is ineffective in preventing crime and protecting the public’s safety,” Mr. Jones-Sawyer said in an email to The Epoch Times. “We will not build on a deeply flawed sentencing system that unfairly punishes disadvantaged communities. SB 14 makes no new corrective actions or enhancements to laws already in place.”
Fellow Democrat committee member Assemblywoman Liz Ortega (D-Hayward) echoed the chair’s sentiment regarding the need to reform the state’s Three Strikes law, while acknowledging the severity of the crimes.
“It’s horrendous. It shouldn’t be happening,” she told committee members and the public in attendance during the hearing. “Three Strikes has also shown that it has failed many in our community. Sending someone to prison for the rest of their life is not going to solve the problem.”
Assemblywoman Liz Ortega, D-Hayward, speaks during a committee hearing in Sacramento on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

Assemblywoman Liz Ortega, D-Hayward, speaks during a committee hearing in Sacramento on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

Republican members of the committee voiced displeasure with the vote’s outcome.
“I’m a proud co-author of SB 14, and today the bill failed on party lines. I believe this bill would have done a great deal of good and would have been common sense legislation to protect the most vulnerable among us,” Assemblyman Juan Alanis (R-Modesto) told The Epoch Times. “If Sacramento is going to take action on sex trafficking, a plague affecting all of California, we have to do something. Today, a majority of my colleagues chose to do nothing.”
Noting the timing of the bill’s consideration and the recent release of the film “Sound of Freedom” detailing the sex trafficking industry and its impacts on children, Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) advised his colleagues to recognize the urgency of the matter.
“This is an incredibly important and very, very troubling issue,” he said during the hearing. “This bill puts into statute something that should already be self-evident: human trafficking of a minor is a very serious felony.”
Before the vote, Mr. Lackey warned the committee about the dangers of inaction.
“Members, please listen to your conscience,” he said. “Human trafficking against children is an affront to human values and decency.”
Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, speaks during a committee hearing in Sacramento on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, speaks during a committee hearing in Sacramento on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

After the Democrat committee members chose not to vote, Mr. Lackey expressed his disappointment with the political divide witnessed in the hearing.
“It was an absolute heartbreak to see political preference inserted, completely inserted, because it didn’t happen on the Senate side,” he told The Epoch Times. “We didn’t have one Democratic vote in favor of this bill today in the Assembly Public Safety Committee, and it’s actually mindboggling.”
Stunned by the committee’s choice to sideline the bill following unanimous support in the Senate, the assemblyman questioned the decision made by the majority of the panel.
“How in the world do you oppose such a minor adjustment appealing to a sense of reason and reject it? Common sense would label this as a serious felony,” Mr. Lackey told The Epoch Times. “The word serious is the only thing in question here, and it was summarily dismissed on a partisan line.”
During a press gathering July 12, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he had expected the bill to pass due to its unanimous support in the Senate.
“I was surprised by that, it’s an area I care deeply about,” the governor said. “I talked to Senator Grove about it this morning, which is indicative of my desire to see what we can do.”
Discussions are reportedly underway with the governor, the bill’s author, and Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Salinas) to evaluate the outcome and potential paths forward for the bill.
“I take it very seriously, and we’ll be following up and will have something to say about it soon,” Mr. Newsom said. “I want to say nothing more than that because I want to understand exactly what happened yesterday.”
California State Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing in Sacramento on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

California State Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing in Sacramento on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

During the hearing, Ms. Grove observed that California leads the world in child sex trafficking crimes.
“Sadly, California has become the hub for child trafficking,” Ms. Grove said. “We need stiff penalties for traffickers, especially for those that traffic minor children.”
The senator told the committee that while current statutes allow for five-, eight-, and 12-year sentences for sex trafficking, the latter is rarely applied, and criminal justice reforms result in many being released after serving only two-thirds of their sentence.
She recounted the tale of one offender that was convicted of trafficking an Orange County girl, sentenced to eight years and released early after only serving four, and subsequently arrested in Bakersfield for trafficking three more girls, aged 14 to 20 years old.
“While I know this committee is about addressing prison overcrowding and not adding enhancements to the roll, I hope we can all agree today that repeatedly selling minors for sex, forcing them to be raped over and over every single day, should be considered a serious felony in the state of California,” Ms. Grove said during her opening remarks presenting the bill.
Testifying in support, former Alameda prosecutor Sharmin Bock recounted her experiences dealing with repeat offenders and what she said is a lack of punishment combined with a fast cash business model that incentivizes human trafficking schemes.
“So, you sell a child for sex, and you serve two years. It’s a cost of doing business,” Ms. Bock said. “Traffickers with five girls in their stables are making close to a million bucks. This is a huge money maker; these girls are ATM machines—this is a cost-benefit analysis.”
Child sex traffickers are emboldened by lenient statutes, and the illicit industry is expanding as a result, according to experts.
“The traffickers are getting so brazen because the law has no teeth,” Ms. Bock said.
Women stand in the Blade area of Los Angeles, Calif., on Feb. 8, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Women stand in the Blade area of Los Angeles, Calif., on Feb. 8, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

More than 70 organizations supported the measure along with cities across California, district attorney’s offices, and law enforcement agencies. Dozens of public statements were made in support by family members and victim advocates.
“I pray that we will protect children over predators and pedophiles,” one member of the public told the committee.
The measure was opposed by a handful of groups including the Public Defenders’ Association and the Sisters Warriors Coalition.
One witness testifying against the bill, April Grayson of the coalition, said the law would create lifelong consequences and told the panel about her past as a sexually trafficked victim convicted of behavior that she says was a survival mechanism, which led to her serving 17 years in prison.
“This bill will actively harm many survivors,” she said. “Many victims are criminalized … and our system is not equipped to identify victims.”
Wary of any attempt to expand sentencing guidelines, Ms. Grayson told lawmakers that prison time is ineffective.
“Prosecuting will not stop trafficking from happening because the traffickers are so easily replaced,” she said. “Until we can protect victims from arrest, we cannot pass laws strengthening sentences.”
Responding to the argument that victims could be caught up in the proposed law, Ms. Bock—the former Bay Area prosecutor—said that district attorney’s offices are aware of the unique predicament victim offenders are in and stressed that the bill only addresses those repeatedly convicted of sexually trafficking children.
“The trend is not to prosecute victim offenders … absent extreme violence,” she said. “As a prosecutor, I’ve seen many of the same faces. … This law is about repeat offenders and only repeat offenders.”
After testimony was complete, Assemblyman Isaac Bryan (D-Culver City) worked to convince the author that he recognizes the effort put into the measure and the complex emotions felt by the witnesses on both sides.
“There’s a lot of courage at this table, and a lot of strength,” Mr. Bryan said. “Know that your impact is going to have a lasting memory for me and everyone on this dais regardless of how this vote shapes today.”
At the same time, he noted his continued opposition to legislation that expands punitive measures.
“I’m struggling with some different things,” Mr. Bryan said. “All evidence has shown that longer sentences don’t stop things from happening.”
Assemblyman Isaac Bryan, D-Culver City, speaks during a committee hearing in Sacramento on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

Assemblyman Isaac Bryan, D-Culver City, speaks during a committee hearing in Sacramento on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

Following up on his colleague’s comments, Mr. Jones-Sawyer, the committee chair, expressed his desire to see current statutes enforced rather than expanding prosecutorial powers, noting that such crimes are already felonies and can include fines of up to $1.5 million.
“I get the feeling that you’re saying that judges, or D.A.’s, or law enforcement, [are] not using these laws to do what you want, to get these people off the street and give them punishment,” he said. “If they won’t move on these, what makes you think they’ll move on others?”
He continued by wondering why statutes are not being enforced for other crimes.
“Minor crime like shoplifting isn’t being prosecuted,” he said. “Something’s going on out there. What are we not doing?”
Clearly frustrated with the direction the conversation was headed, the author of the bill argued in her closing remarks that the crimes being considered required urgent action.
“Human trafficking is modern slavery,” Ms. Grove said. “We have pictures of girls with tattoos branded on their faces as young as 12. God’s children are not for sale.”
Seeking to find a resolution, Mr. Jones-Sawyer suggested he and Ms. Grove meet and formulate a plan.
“The author and I have not discussed this and come up with opportunities in a way that works for the majority of the members of the committee and so that the Three Strikes law doesn’t impact communities,” he said. “We’re going to have to work really hard to get it where we can move forward. I was a no, now I’m not voting, so we’re moving in the right direction.”
Members of the audience erupted with shouts of “cowards” and “horrible” following the announcement that the bill failed, with Mr. Jones-Sawyer chuckling awkwardly in response to the outbursts.
The bill, ultimately, was granted reconsideration by the committee and can be brought up again next year. But supporters of the legislation say the implications of the safety committee’s decision are profound.
“The sad reality is that trafficked children on Figueroa Street and across California will continue to be raped and victimized until Assembly Democrats take action,” Ms. Grove said in a statement to The Epoch Times.
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Travis Gillmore

Travis Gillmore

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Travis Gillmore is an avid reader and journalism connoisseur based in California covering finance, politics, the State Capitol, and breaking news for The Epoch Times.

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