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Assembly Public Safety Committee Reverses Course


Last updated 9/14/2023 at 10:35am

The Assembly Public Safety Committee backpedaled its course to pass Senate Bill 14, which would make sex trafficking of minors a serious crime in California.

The bill, authored by Senator Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), was initially blocked on a 2 – 0 vote by the Democrats in the Assembly Public Safety Committee, with six Democrats not voting, amid concerns that it would penalize victims and worsen incarceration rates.

After major backlash from local, state and national figures, the Speaker of the Assembly called for an emergency hearing to reconsider the bill, where it passed with unanimous support, 6 – 0, without any debate.

“Democrats on the Assembly Public Safety Committee reconsidered the merits of Senate Bill 14 and voted to let it out of committee,” said Senator Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), the bill author and champion of this issue. “This is a bill with strong bipartisan support, and protecting victims of child sex trafficking should not be a partisan issue. Today is a victory for every survivor. However, the battle is not over – SB 14 must still go through the Assembly Appropriations Committee when legislators return from Summer recess. I believe most Assembly Democrats want to vote for this bill if they are given a chance, and I am hopeful we can succeed in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. I urge every Californian to stay engaged until the bill is signed into law.”

SB 14 was carefully crafted to meet concerns of previous legislative efforts and received unanimous support in the State Senate as it passed 40 to 0 out of the upper house of the Legislature.

“In the end, my Democrat colleagues in the Assembly Public Safety Committee did the right thing and passed SB 14 that will make sure repeat offenders of child sex trafficking are held accountable,” said Senate Minority Leader Brian W. Jones (R-San Diego). “If it were not for the extraordinary pushback from figures around the state and nation, I fear the Democrats’ one-party rule and some of their radical ideologies would have prevailed. I’m grateful for the efforts of Senator Grove who has been a fearless leader on this issue and to my Senate Democrat colleagues who saw the need for this measure.”

Both Governor Gavin Newsom and Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) intervened with promises to continue working on the proposal. Governor Newsom said that he called Grove personally about the bill and claimed that he was “surprised” by its demise, while Rivas, who is less than two weeks into his leadership role, said it was “something that we are addressing and it’s something we are going to get right.”

Current law can send convicted human traffickers of minors to prison for up to 12 years, or 15 years to life if the crime involves, among other factors, force, coercion or violence. But by making the crime a “serious” felony subject to California’s “three strikes” law, SB 14 aims to lengthen prison terms for repeat traffickers and ensure they’re not released early. A relic of California’s “tough on crime” era of the 1980s and 90s, three strikes allows prosecutors to pursue life sentences for individuals who commit a third crime and have two prior convictions of “serious” or “violent” felonies on their records.

The Assembly Public Safety Committee initially voted SB 14 down amid concerns that it could unintentionally lead to the prosecution of victims who are forced into a cycle of human trafficking, while exacerbating racial inequities in California’s prison system.

The committee’s course reversal frustrated the bill’s opponents, who have rejected the argument that sex traffickers are not being punished in California.

Isa Borgeson, a manager for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an advocacy organization opposed to SB 14, said the measure “does nothing to prevent the trafficking of minors or provide them with the healing that they need and deserve.”

“The people most vulnerable to being charged with trafficking are the victims of trafficking themselves. Charges are used to leverage their cooperation in prosecution and their survivor status is erased with many currently incarcerated in both youth and adult prisons,” Assembymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles), a close Rivas ally, wrote on Twitter. Bryan is a member of the Public Safety Committee, and abstained from voting on SB 14 both on Tuesday and Thursday.

“Nobody supports the trafficking of children or any people. That’s why existing laws carry the potential for life in prison. We can and must do more to affirm, protect, and support survivors with all of our civic resources – including those beyond the criminal legal system,” he wrote.

In a statement, Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur (D-Los Angeles) said he voted for the bill to give Senator Grove more time to change it to address the opposition and ensure it would not lead to the prosecution of victims. Zbur initially abstained from voting on SB 14.

“The bill still needs more work before it comes back to the floor to ensure that a victim is treated like a victim, not a criminal, and the real perpetrators are brought to justice,” Zbur said.

Senate Bill 14 is expected to be heard in Assembly Appropriations, a key fiscal committee, once lawmakers return from a month-long recess in mid-August. The final day to pass bills this year is Sept. 14.

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