Alumna Jess Emerson discusses sex trafficking, vacatur laws on NPR

Jess Emerson, J.D. ’13, was interviewed for a Feb. 24 NPR story, “Little-Known Laws Help Sex Trafficking Victims Clear Criminal Records.” Emerson is an Equal Justice Works fellow at the Women’s Law Center of Maryland, where she serves as the project director of the Trafficking Victims Postconviction Advocacy Project.

Maryland is one of 20 states with vacatur laws on the books – laws that allow judges to void the prostitution convictions of sex-trafficking victims, Emerson said. Though Maryland’s law took effect in 2011, it has been used only twice, she told NPR.

“Policy folks go in and get the law passed, but they don’t have a plan in place to have boots on the ground once the law is enacted,” she said in a separate interview.

Active vacatur programs exist in only a handful of states, said Emerson, who works to find advocates across the country who are willing to train lawyers and take cases.

“It’s really a matter of networking,” she said. “It’s our own little game of Telephone to find out who can be helpful.”

Emerson said vacatur remains little known as an option for current or former sex-trafficking victims, including a woman she’d just talked to who escaped prostitution 15 years ago but still has criminal records in numerous states.

The woman cried with relief when she heard about vacatur, Emerson said.

“It was really a wonderful conversation,” Emerson continued. “She left feeling like there was hope. That’s probably the thing that’s best about this movement, or vacatur, in general.”

Emerson emphasized that vacatur is part of a larger effort to expunge criminal records, which can prevent people from securing employment, housing and benefits.

“We really need to address the burden of criminal convictions for far more than survivors of trafficking,” Emerson said.

“This is a small piece of a larger puzzle.”

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