Only days after facing political blowback for blocking legislation that would have classified child sex trafficking as a serious felony in the Golden State, the state’s Assembly Public Safety Committee was forced Thursday to hold a special hearing to vote on the bill again to approve it.
The measure passed 6-0, with Democrat Assemblymembers Isaac Bryan and Mia Bonta not voting.
“Selling our children in the state of California should not be an option, and I’m excited the public safety committee considered the bill,” said GOP State Senator Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, who authored the bill. Grove said that the measure picked up 18 more coauthors on Thursday morning, most Democrats.
The move comes after the Democrat-led committee and Assembly faced significant public backlash from Democratic state leaders and the public, as well as Governor Gavin Newsom, for halting the measure that aims to prevent repeat child sex traffickers from getting released early from prison. The measure is now halfway through the legislative process and passed the California Senate unanimously with bipartisan, broad support.
Democrat Majority Leader Isaac Bryan, also one of six Democrats on the committee who refused to vote on the legislation earlier in the week, moved to waive rules on the floor of the Assembly Thursday morning that forced the committee to hear the bill again immediately.
Bryan said he didn’t vote on the bill due to concerns it would criminalize victims of trafficking.
“The people most vulnerable to being charged with trafficking are the victims of trafficking themselves,” tweeted Bryan. “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.”
Grove responded to the criticism and noted she had changed the legislation several times to try to appease similar concerns held by Democrats in the state Senate, which ultimately approved the bill.
“We don’t want anyone who is a victim of violent crime like human trafficking to be charged or put in prison for that; that is not my intent, that is not what the bill says,” said Grove.
Democrat Assemblymember Liz Ortega tweeted early Thursday morning that she made a mistake by not voting for the bill earlier in the week.
“I made a bad decision. Voting against legislation targeting really bad people who traffic children was wrong. I regret doing that, and I am going to help get this important legislation passed into law,” wrote Ortega.
GOP lawmakers in the Assembly attempted to pull the bill out of the committee and force a vote on the floor on the measure on Thursday. However, Democrats countered and claimed that if the bill were to reach the floor and bypass the Appropriations Committee, the measure might not be fully funded.
“It should not be this hard to pass good, common-sense policy that protects our children,” said James Gallagher, Assembly Republican Minority Leader.
The last-minute hearing marks the second time the chairman of the committee, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, has been forced to reverse course on his decision-making as the leader of the influential policy committee.
Earlier this year, leadership forced the committee to have a hearing on a set of bills related to fentanyl after he initially announced he would not hear them. Despite voting for the measure Thursday, Jones-Sawyer said the bill still needs work.
“I’m trying to get to a perfect bill so that we’re able to help these young women in a way that’s never been done before,” he said.
Child trafficking continues to be a growing problem in California.
The measure is supported by law enforcement, victims
The measure is supported by former Democratic Assemblyman and Sacramento County Sheriff Jim Cooper, who has said human trafficking has exponentially exploded in the past three decades that he’s been in law enforcement.
Cooper blames laws passed out of the state capitol that do not hold child traffickers accountable.
“We’ve had several arrests recently. We had three young girls, two 16-year-olds and a 13-year-old who we rescued, and we’re right now trying to prosecute their trafficker,” said Cooper on Thursday.
“The issue with that is, under California law, he’s only going to do half his time for a life sentence, which is mind-boggling in itself,” said Cooper.
Thursday, Dominique Brown, a former trafficking victim, was inside the state capitol when the Assembly Public Safety Committee reversed its decision. She said that ten years ago, her trafficker was released from prison after serving five years and tried to contact her.
Brown now works with child trafficking victims in Fresno and says she has also seen a growing increase in the number of children affected by the crime. She said she currently works with 40 children who are victims of trafficking; the youngest is 11 years old. Brown applauds the passage of the bill.
“The trafficker knows kids are off limits,” said Brown. “This bill, knowing you can spend the rest of your life in jail if you come for our children, is a game changer.”