An important piece of legislation to help sex-trafficking survivors move on with their lives passed an important hurdle in the legislature on March 19. The House passed the bill, which removes certain criminal convictions from sex-trafficking survivors’ records, 131-7. The Senate is now reviewing its own version of the bill.
One of the strongest advocates for this bill, known as the True Freedom Act of 2019, has been UB School of Law Professor Jessica Emerson, JD ’13, founder and director of the law school’s Human Trafficking Prevention Project. According to a new study, of which Prof. Emerson was an author, Maryland is among the worst in the country in providing criminal-records relief for survivors.
The March 14 report, prepared by UB School of Law, Brooklyn Law School, the ABA-based Survivor Reentry Project and the nonprofit advocacy group Polaris, looked at federal and state criminal record-relief statutes intended for victims of human trafficking who were arrested or prosecuted as adults.
Maryland ranks so poorly, the report stated, primarily because it offers relief for too narrow a range of convictions obtained as a result of trafficking, and because it has a difficult process for vacating convictions, including obtaining approval from the state’s attorney.
While initially praised as forward-thinking, efforts by the Maryland legislature in 2011 to allow victims of human trafficking to have prostitution convictions cleared were later deemed inadequate by advocates. “Survivors had been forced by their traffickers to commit criminal acts other than prostitution,” Prof. Emerson told The Baltimore Sun for a March 14 story that was later picked up by The Washington Post.
The Sun‘s editorial board came out strongly in favor of the legislation in a March 16 editorial, which concluded with: “Eight years ago, Maryland lawmakers tried to do the right thing for victims — now they should finish the job.”
In 2016, the National Survivor Network surveyed survivors of human trafficking and found that 91 percent of 130 respondents had been arrested — 40 percent of them nine times or more. Survivors testified in hearings before the Maryland General Assembly that they have lost jobs or been unable to obtain employment because of convictions for crimes they committed at the direction of, and while under the control of, their traffickers. These crimes have included acts like theft, drug possession and distribution, and solicitation.
The bill has come up for review previously in the legislature but has always faced opposition from the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association, Prof. Emerson said. But that opposition was removed after the bill was amended to satisfy the organization’s concerns.