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How new California bill could help trafficking victims struggling to find jobs

Survivors of sex and human trafficking join law enforcement in urging Gov. Newsom to sign a bill that would erase victims’ nonviolent criminal records faster.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When Arien Garcia first escaped from life as a victim of human sex trafficking, she struggled to find a job anywhere in Fresno.

Her nonviolent criminal record always pushed her job applications to the bottom of the pile. She said she applied to “every McDonald’s and Taco Bell in Fresno and in Clovis” and even went in for an interview at a local Subway on Christmas Eve.

“I was beyond determined to have something else that didn’t define me as my past, and I was denied each and every single time,” said Garcia. “It was so frustrating.”

But now, survivors like Garcia could get help clearing away old nonviolent convictions under a proposed state law with broad support among local leaders.

Garcia on Tuesday gathered with Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, Assemblyman Jim Patterson, Police Chief Paco Balderrama, and a human trafficking support group, Breaking the Chains, to urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign AB 262 into law.

The bill, introduced in the Legislature by Patterson, would help expedite clearing the nonviolent criminal records of human trafficking victims. It also would eliminate the requirement to pay fees before a court hearing.

Credit: Photo by Craig Kohlruss, Fresno Bee for CalMatters
Arien Pauls, who for years was a victim of human trafficking, looks out her window of her home in Fresno on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. Pauls now helps other victims of human trafficking.

Looking for work as a survivor

Today, Garcia is a youth program manager with the Central Valley Justice Coalition. But the road to employment was not easy.

Under AB 262, survivors would have their records purged with local law enforcement and the state Justice Department within 90 days of a judge’s order, rather than the current wait time that can take up to a year.

For a survivor unable to pass a background check to get a job, one year is too long, supporters said.

Garcia is one of the estimated 27 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, according to the Central Valley Justice Coalition. From 2010-2018, over 700 victims have been identified and rescued, according to Central Valley Against Human Trafficking.

So far this year Fresno police have investigated 52 human trafficking cases, which have led to the arrests of 20 human traffickers and the release of 59 trafficked victims, Balderrama said.

Dyer acknowledged that under his tenure as the former police chief, the department “got it wrong” and treated the trafficked woman as suspects rather than as victims.

The department changed its approach after investigators wiretapped a local gang that trafficked women and learned of the conditions the victims were subject to.

“Some of these young women would love to go into a school and volunteer because they have children, but their past prohibits them from doing it,” said Dyer. “So today, I urge the governor to sign this bill.”

Allowing survivors to move on

Support groups and local leaders say the state law would have a huge impact on the day-to-day lives of survivors of human and sex trafficking.

Dominique Brown turned to Breaking the Chains when she wanted to get out of her former life as a trafficked sex worker, but her pending court charges made it hard for her to lead a normal life.

She said she couldn’t volunteer in her daughter’s classroom or go on field trips because of her criminal record. Her daughter is now 10 and she has a baby boy on the way.

Brown said the ability to expedite the process to expunge victims’ records would help victims move forward with their lives.

“Being able to volunteer at your daughter’s or kids’ school — that’s huge for me, I really wanted that,” said the survivor advocate.

Patterson said he is confident that Newsom will sign the bill, “but we did want to take this moment to celebrate how far we have come.”

Garcia said she thinks the bill will have ripple effects in improving the community, strengthening the workforce and ultimately giving hope to former victims. “This is a long time coming.”

Melissa Montalvo is a reporter with The Fresno Bee and a Report for America corps member. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.