When women are sex trafficked, they have to go to extreme measures to protect their well being.
Whether it be stealing from a local store or identity theft, these crimes for survival can create a barrier for women once they’ve escaped from the control of their pimp.
That’s because Virginia doesn’t currently allow for the expungement of past crimes if an individual was found guilty, regardless of the situation.
“I think it stands to reason [that] if you are in a situation where a bad guy is taking advantage of you as a sexual object, they’ll be using you for other criminal enterprises and that will lead to you being arrested and convicted of felony and misdemeanor crimes,” said Nate Green, commonwealth’s attorney for Williamsburg-James City County.
Green said the issue with the current laws is that they only provide expungement for those who are innocent. There isn’t wiggle room for women who committed a crime for their own survival while being sex trafficked.
And when a survivor starts to create a new life, that can become an issue because they can be denied certain public assistance, from student loans and other employment opportunities. This is an issue most survivors face, said Elizabeth Ameling, executive director of Latisha’s House, a nonprofit that provides resources for women who have escaped sex trafficking.
Ameling said all of the women at Latisha’s house have been convicted of either a misdemeanor or felony of some sort. In the past, she has even had women give up on their dreams of higher education because their convictions for crimes committed while being trafficked held them back.
“People think prostitution is defined as a choice,” Ameling said. “But a child victim should not be punished for adult decisions.”
There are new bills proposed that address the issue. Del. Charniele Herring (D-46) proposed a bill that would allow for the expungement of convictions and police court records of human trafficking victims. The bill would allow a victim of human trafficking to petition the court to vacate convictions for crimes committed while being trafficked.
However, the bill requires the victim to provide official documentation as a victim of human trafficking during the time of the offense.
Green said the bill has been tabled for the moment while lawmakers analyze studies about how to best enact new language to fit the situation. For Green, he hopes there is a way to not only create new language around expungement but to remove the convictions entirely.
“There have been efforts to force a round peg of prior conviction into a square hole of Virginia expungement,” he said. “And that’s not helping, it’s just covering it up.”
To explain the issue, Green uses the analogy of spilling wine on a carpet. He said there are two choices: the first is to go out and buy a rug to cover the stain, which is similar to expungement. The stain is still there, it’s just that no one can see it until they look.
The second option is to get carpet cleaner to actually remove the stain.
“For example, when you file for a student loan, it’s not that someone comes to your house, looks at the run and sees the stain,” he said. “They’re going to actually ask you ‘is there a stain on your carpet.’”
Green said the best solution would be to find a way to get the convictions truly removed, similar to a pardon. However, it would be far too difficult of a process to actually issue pardons for every single conviction so, Green said, there needs to be a different way to change the law.
A better future
While lawmakers decide how to correct the language for expungement, others are looking for different ways to prevent barriers to success for survivors of sex trafficking.
Del. Amanda Batten (R-96) introduced a bill that would make victims of sex trafficking eligible for in-state tuition.
“Anything we can do to support these ladies and help them move onto a better life, it’s better for society as a whole,” she said.
Batten said it’s not a new concept but it was one she wanted to bring awareness to again. The issue for survivors is that many have been trafficked from other states and can’t return for safety reasons, which means they are having to pay out-of-state tuition if they pursue higher education.
“They’re not residents of Virginia, but this is their only home,” Batten said.
Part of the issue is it also creates a burden on nonprofits that care for these women because they’re often sponsoring their education. So even if the women aren’t paying for their tuition, the higher costs are pulling from funds of local organizations.
Batten’s bill didn’t pass through the committee on education for fiscal reasons, she said.
However, she hopes the bill will be picked up again in the future.
“I think it acknowledges the fact that a lot of these women have been victimized their entire life,” she said. “It’s a huge step to turn their life around and overcome these challenges…and I think we should provide a way that’s more feasible for them.”