One of the reasons trafficking is such a horrific crime is its far-reaching effects on victims long after they escape or are rescued from physical danger. The aftermath affects every aspect of life, from their ability to form healthy relationships and trust their own judgment to their opportunities to achieve financial independence due to gaps in their education and work experience. Because of this, any serious efforts to eradicate trafficking must include not only law enforcement and therapeutic services, but the removal of roadblocks that continue to revictimize survivors. For antitrafficking advocates, this means expunging records for arrests that occurred while they were trafficked.
While many trafficked persons are made to work right under our noses in legitimate industries (i.e. nail salons), they are just as often forced onto the front lines of dangerous and illegal activities like prostitution and drug dealing. Oftentimes, law enforcement arrests, prosecutes, and incarcerates individuals engaged in these activities without knowing they are the true victims, while the traffickers count their money in the shadows. These arrest records then continue to follow the victims around as they struggle to rebuild their lives.
In 2016, the National Survivor’s Network published a study on post-conviction relief (or the lack thereof) in the U.S. Among the most disturbing results were that 73% of survivors were fired from a job (or not hired in the first place) because of their criminal record and 58% could not find affordable housing. Those dreaming of a college degree found that more than half of public and private universities ask questions about criminal history on their applications.
This is not about giving people a free pass on crime. A key component of nearly every criminal statute is intent; a person responsible for the death of another will be charged with a lesser crime (i.e. manslaughter) if they didn’t have the requisite state of mind to commit murder. When an individual is caught with illegal substances, law enforcement uses the weight of said substances to infer whether they had the intent to sell, which carries much stiffer penalties. Despite their actions and the appearance of free will, however, trafficked persons lack the agency to form intent – they are just doing what they are told in order to avoid physical violence and/or being left to live on the streets. When people have been trafficked across international lines, the traffickers often take their passports then threaten to report them to immigration authorities.
Legislation on the state and federal levels has continued to improve apace with our understanding of trafficking, but removing survivors’ criminal records remains, in many places, a critical missing piece. The Polaris group has published a report card grading each state’s efforts in this regard, with detailed explanations about where these laws fall short. Trafficked persons have enough on their plates as they try to heal from trauma; they deserve to do so without the added weight of crimes that, had they not been preyed upon, they would not have committed.