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Props To You: Stiffening human trafficking penalties with Proposition 35

A prostitute waits for clients on Pacific Blvd in Walnut Park. Some sex workers worry that Proposition 35 - which aims to crack down on sex traffickers - will end up marginalizing prostitutes.
A prostitute waits for clients on Pacific Blvd in Walnut Park. Some sex workers worry that Proposition 35 - which aims to crack down on sex traffickers - will end up marginalizing prostitutes.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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When Californians go to the polls this November, they'll once again have decide how to vote on lots of ballot measures. This time, there are 11 Propositions to sort through.

In a new series called "Props to You," we'll explain what the measure contains.

Today, we'll cover Proposition 35, which stiffens penalties for those found guilty of human trafficking.

So far its been polling strongly, but the ballot measure has also stirred criticism, and you might be surprised who's come out against it.

Q: So what exactly do we mean by human trafficking?
A: The law recognizes two categories of human trafficking. First, there's labor trafficking. That's when an undocumented person is forced to work under threat of deportation. Then there's sex trafficking, which is when women and children are forced to have sex for money.

Q: So how a big problem is human trafficking?
A: It's hard to get a firm number because the problem is so hidden, but federal estimates peg the number of people trafficked into the U.S. at tens of thousands a year. And, according to the State Attorney General's office, California is right at the top of places where people are exploited.

Q: So what would the proposition do?
A: It toughens up penalties for all human traffickers, but most of the changes would affect sex trafficking. Maximum fines for sex trafficking would go from $100,000 to $1.5 million. The money would go toward training police on how to handle human trafficking complaints, and provide services to trafficking victims. Prison sentences could be as high as 15-years-to-life.

Q: How long are prison sentences now?
A: Right now, under state law, sentences are between five to eight years. So if Prop 35 passes, offenders could do much more time. And coming out of prison, they would also have to register as sex offenders. They'd also be required to share information about their online activities with law enforcement, like what their screen names are. That's because the sex trade has largely moved to the Internet.

Q: So who's advocating for Prop 35?
A: Victims' groups like California Against Slavery are on the forefront. And they've got the support of a long list of law enforcement agencies like California Peace Officers. Also, both major state parties have endorsed it. Financially, the biggest backer is Chris Kelly.

Q: Chris Kelley, his name sounds familiar.
A: Chris Kelly lost the Democratic nomination for attorney general to Kamala Harris in 2010. Before that, he was the top privacy officer for Facebook. During his time at Facebook, he worked with the state of New York on removing sex offenders from the social network. That led him to giving $1.9 million to the campaign.

Says Kelly: "When I joined Facebook, we'd seen incredible amounts of Internet focus on attempted sexual exploitation and when that continued to come to my attention - and the scale of it - it was something I was very concerned about addressing for both my company, for the state and for the world."

In the meantime, no political action committee has been raising money to defeat the proposition.

Q: So this lopsided spending could explain why Prop 35 is polling well?
A: Definitely. The ballot question's been pulling in between 80 to 90 percent support over the last few months. This is based on surveys by the California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University.

Q: OK, but there are organizations speaking out against Prop 35, right?
A: Yes, for starters, the American Civil Liberties Union in California is opposing the measure. The ACLU says requiring convicted sex traffickers to provide screen names keeps them from enjoying anonymous online speech.

Q: So, in the view of the ACLU, that infringes on these people's First Amendment rights. Who else is against this?

A: Sex workers, prostitutes, but for an entirely different reason. Maxine Doogan is founder of Erotic Service Providers Legal, Educational and Research Project and a working prostitute. She worries that Proposition 35 is written so broadly that people acting as prostitutes of their own accord will be treated as traffickers.

Of particular concern to Doogan is language in the proposition that she says would change the penal code, and criminalize a person who gets some financial support from a prostitute's earnings.

Conceivably, she says, the law could treat a prostitute accepting rent money from another prostitute as a trafficker.

This, she says, will only drive prostitutes further underground and make them fearful of reporting assaults.

Says Doogan: "It's just disingenuous for Prop 35 proponents to say that they are against human trafficking and and then to throw prostitutes and our communities and our families under the bus and say it's perfectly OK if we are subjected to the violence of criminalization, all under the guise of rescuing traffic victims."

Q: Nevertheless, Prop 35 looks like a good bet to pass. Will we see a lot more prosecutions?
A: Not necessarily. This year, only 18 people are sitting in California prison for human trafficking. That's because most trafficking cases are prosecuted under federal law since the crime often takes place across multiple jurisdictions. So whether Prop 35 has a big impact really depends on whether California get to prosecute the cases.