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PD Editorial: Yes on 35: Crack down on exploitation

During a sting operation, Santa Rosa police said, a suspected pimp arrived at a local motel accompanied by a 17-year-old girl.

The girl was released to her parents. The pimp was arrested and could be charged with several felonies, including human trafficking.

Provisions of state and federal law prohibit trafficking of human beings for prostitution or forced labor. Who could quibble?

Proposition 35 on the Nov. 6 ballot is a bid to increase the criminal penalties for this modern-day slave trade, to bring state and federal laws into closer conformity and to provide some relief for the victims of this deplorable and degrading practice.

The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote on Proposition 35.

"Human trafficking competes with arms trafficking as the second-largest worldwide criminal enterprise, with its estimated revenues exceeding $15 billion," Nicholas Sensely, a former Santa Rosa police lieutenant, wrote on these pages in 2008. "In this unfair comparison, weapons may be repairable, but for the broken lives of the children, women and men in the human trafficking industry there are no replacement parts."

Human trafficking is defined as violating a person's liberty for the purpose of forced labor or prostitution. Proposition 35 puts human traffickers at greater legal risk by increasing penalties, including a potential life sentence for trafficking a minor for sex if force or fraud is involved. Currently, the maximum sentence is eight years. The maximum penalty for labor trafficking would increase from five years to 12, and it would quadruple from five years to 20 for forced sex trafficking of an adult.

The initiative also bolsters sex-offender registration requirements and allows judges to impose fines of up to $1.5 million. Seventy percent of any revenue from fines would be distributed to public agencies and nonprofit organizations that provide direct services to victims of sex trafficking or labor trafficking. The rest would be earmarked for law enforcement agencies to be used for human trafficking prevention, witness protection and rescue operations.

Critics say Proposition 35 threatens to drive up the prison population at a time when the state is struggling to comply with a federal court order to reduce overcrowding. It's not an unreasonable concern, but it's not a likely scenario either as federal prosecutors handle most human trafficking cases. As of March, only 18 people were serving time for human trafficking in California prisons.

A more substantive criticism is that Proposition 35 is another example of ballot-box budgeting. With the state struggling to make ends meet, legislators need more flexibility to set priorities for state revenue. Law enforcement and victims' services are valuable programs, but they should be weighed against other potential uses for any fines collected from convicted human traffickers.

On balance, however, this measure reinforces a simple conviction: Human trafficking is a repugnant crime that's worthy of harsh punishment. The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote on Proposition 35.


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