Bills of 2023 | Governor signs bill to increase penalties for child trafficking

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Editor’s note: The Signal is presenting CalMatters’ wrap-up stories on some of the key bills that reached the governor’s desk at the close of the 2023 legislative session. Here’s the CalMatters summary of a bill that increases penalties for child trafficking. 

By Nigel Duara  
CalMatters Writer  

Senate Bill 14 reclassifies human trafficking of a minor for purposes of a commercial sex act as a “serious felony,” which will be treated as a strike under California’s three strikes law.  

Previous law allowed for a sentence of as long as 12 years in prison for human trafficking of a minor for purposes of commercial sex. If the crime involves force, fear, fraud, deceit, coercion, violence, duress, menace, or threat of unlawful injury to the victim or to another person, the sentence was 15 years to life. If the person is convicted of inflicting great bodily harm on the victim while trafficking them, a judge could add as much as 10 years.  

Under the bill, people convicted of the crime face longer prison terms and potential life sentences.  

Who Supports It 

Police and prosecutors, representatives from conservative California cities and several crime victims’ groups, who argue that the nation’s largest state also has its biggest child trafficking problem — at least as measured by the number of cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. 

After the bill failed to pass out of the Assembly public safety committee, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas stepped in, and within 48 hours, it was given another look and passed.   

Who Is Opposed 

Civil rights groups, some public defenders’ offices and progressive criminal justice organizations, who argue that the penalties are already severe enough for child trafficking crimes and that criminal justice research shows that harsher sentences do not deter crime. Opponents also have contended that the more severe penalties may end up being applied to people at the lowest rungs of trafficking, who may be trafficked themselves.  

Why It Matters 

Similar human trafficking bills failed in 2007, twice in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2017 and three times in 2021. The proposal found new life in 2023, helped along by a storm of social media activism.   

The debate over the bill became contentious: At one point, Assemblymember Heath Flora, a Ripon Republican, told colleagues: “You can choose a team, pick pedophiles or children.”  

A Democratic Assemblymember said she received death threats over her initial committee vote to abstain from voting on the bill, virtually blocking it.    

The Governor’s Call 

Newsom announced Sept. 25 he signed the bill. “Human trafficking is a sick crime,” he said in a statement. “With this new law, California is going further to protect kids. I’m grateful for the leadership of Senator Grove, Speaker Rivas, and Pro Tem Atkins in spearheading this bipartisan effort to make our communities and children safer.”   

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