Efforts by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office to address sex trafficking in the area were validated by the passage of a new state bill Monday that extends the DA’s program to help sexually exploited minors.
The pilot program, developed by Alameda County DA Nancy O’Malley, exempts the county from state law — instead of trafficked minors being arrested and imprisoned for crimes of prostitution, they are given support services to help them recover and restart their lives. The bill, SB 1064, indefinitely extends the program, which was originally set to expire in January 2017.
In a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown sent at the end of August, O’Malley urged the governor to sign SB 1064, explaining that with the help of the pilot program, the DA’s office has been able to link 593 sexually exploited minors to safety services in the community as well as prosecute more than 509 perpetrators.
“The program has been very successful,” said Senator Loni Hancock, the author of SB 1064. “It has broad support among law enforcement as well as social services and since it was a pilot, my bill just added the next piece. It makes it a continuing program and it says that other counties can decide to do something similar.”
SB 1064 specifically redefines young trafficked individuals as victims rather than as criminals. Hancock emphasized that “words matter” and that this language change would have a significant impact on dealing with issues of trafficking and prostitution.
According to Hancock, the bill is about helping trafficked individuals get a new start. She added that California has been working towards limiting its number of incarcerated citizens in many ways and that SB 1064 is just one example of this.
“It is part of this very positive movement away from incarceration and I welcome it,” Hancock said. “I’m delighted that we’ve taken another strong positive step forward in California on corrections reform and making sure that we can give our young people a second chance when they need it.”
Teresa Drenick, assistant district attorney for Alameda County, also expressed the office’s excitement that its work with the pilot program will be allowed to continue. The DA’s office was one of the sponsors of the bill.
“The District Attorney’s office is extremely pleased and grateful that the governor signed this important bill,” Drenick said. “Now this bill allows us to continue this (program). It’s a very important tool in our efforts to put an end to the crime of sex trafficking.”
But there is some hesitance about the bill. Hannah Ousterman, co-president of the Anti-Trafficking Coalition at Berkeley and a campus junior, said she was “on the fence” about SB 1064. She said although it makes sense not to criminalize trafficking victims, a big concern for anti-trafficking organizations is whether the necessary services will be adequately funded and easily accessible.
“It does seem like a step in the right direction, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done in Alameda and the state and the country to make sure that the issue is really addressed,” Ousterman said, adding that sex trafficking is a prevalent issue in the county so she believes that the bill is particularly relevant to the local community.
Hancock remarked that the response to the bill has been overwhelmingly positive and has received support from the community.
“I think it’s evidence of a new emerging consensus: To have safe communities, we have to do more than simply put people in prison or jail,” Hancock said. “We need, especially in cases like this, to provide help for people so that they can reset their lives on a more positive course.”