Berkeley City Council will consider creating a task force next week that would combat sexual exploitation of minors in the city, an effort that mirrors a push to increase the severity of human trafficking penalties across the state.
The council will vote on whether or not to create the nine-person task force, which would be made up of city and law enforcement officials, at its meeting on March 20. The idea for the task force originated from a panel discussion led by the city’s Commission on the Status of Women and the Peace and Justice Commission that was prompted by reports of underage girls at Berkeley High School involved in acts of prostitution, according to Stephen Murphy, vice-chair of the city’s Commission on the Status of Women.
“We are putting finances into community resources and into education … to criminalize the perpetrators,” he said.
According to the City Council recommendation, the city does not currently offer any services that specifically deal with issues of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. The purpose of the task force is to investigate and publish reports to the city on the “already-existing data of sexual exploitation and underage sex trafficking in Berkeley.”
The local effort is representative of a larger statewide endeavor to combat issues of sex trafficking through legislation, a battle that is at the crux of the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act — a bill that aims to increase prison terms for convicted sex traffickers and up the restitution fees they must pay to victims.
The bill was authored by California Against Slavery, a state human rights group that is trying to get the act onto the November 2012 state ballot.
“(The bill) is not the end all of human trafficking legislation,” said Daphne Phung, executive director and founder of California Against Slavery. “This is a huge step in our state to combat this issue and recognize the severity of horrendous acts against human beings.”
The issue of human trafficking is not new to the city. Following the conviction of Berkeley real estate mogul Lakireddy Bali Reddy on counts of transporting minors from India for illegal sexual activity, the state passed Assembly Bill 22 in 2005. The bill increased the severity of the sentence to three, four or five years in state prison for trafficking adults and a sentence of four, six or eight years for trafficking a minor.
The bill also mandated that convicted sex traffickers pay restitution to trafficking victims and allowed victims to bring their traffickers to civil court, something that was fairly new when the Bali Reddy case came to the courts.
Former state assemblymember Sally Lieber, Assembly Bill 22’s chief sponsor, told the SF Public Press that the Bali Reddy case “was confirmation of what the problem was” and “was definitely on our minds” when the legislation was drafted.
Bali Reddy served his sentence in federal prison between 2001 and 2008 and paid $2 million in fines to the sister of a female trafficking victim who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in one of his apartment buildings. He continues to work at Everest Properties on Shattuck Avenue, which manages a large percentage of the properties in the city.
“The Lakireddy case was important because it showed people that sex and labor trafficking can occur anywhere, even in Berkeley,” said Michael Rubin, the attorney who represented the victims of the Bali Reddy case in a civil suit in 2002. “Ultimately, that’s what’s going to be the first line of defense against trafficking — community awareness of these human rights violations.”
There were no official civil remedies provided by the state for victims of sexual trafficking before Assembly Bill 22, Lieber said at a human trafficking symposium hosted Sunday at the UC Berkeley International House.
Panelists and focus groups came together at the symposium to address implementing preventative education and increasing law enforcement that would increase support for survivors of human trafficking. “Despite substantial efforts made, human trafficking is at the same stage as domestic violence was decades ago, and there is still work to be done,” Lieber said at the symposium.
Anjuli Sastry covers city government.