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By Elena Shore
New America Media
Leah Albright-Byrd, a native San Franciscan who ran away from home at age 14 to escape a violent father, said she didn’t know she “was running into the arms of a trafficker.”
“The trafficker told me, ‘You’re having sex anyway, you might as well get paid for it,’” said Albright-Byrd, who was trafficked in the Mission District, Las Vegas and online from the age of 14 to 18. “I was told, ‘Once a ho, always a ho,’ that that was my destiny.”
Now a college graduate and doctoral candidate who next month will celebrate her tenth year of freedom, Albright-Byrd says she is proud to call herself a survivor.
She spoke Wednesday at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco, to kick off a campaign to get a new measure on the November ballot that would increase penalties against human traffickers in California. The campaign, launched on National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, requires 800,000 signatures to make it into the state ballot.
The California Against Sexual Exploitation (CASE) Act would increase prison terms and fines for human traffickers (up to $1.5 million, which would go to fund victim services), remove barriers to prosecute child sex traffickers, require convicted sex traffickers to register as sex offenders and disclose their Internet accounts, mandate training for law enforcement officers, and prohibit the use of the sexual history of trafficked victims in court.
If it passes, the law would be the toughest anti-human trafficking state law in the country.
Human trafficking -- the criminal enterprise that profits from enslaving people for sexual servitude or forced labor -- is tied with illegal arms as the second largest criminal industry in the world today, after drug trafficking, and it is the fastest growing, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
California is a hotspot for the sex trafficking of minors: An FBI report names three California cities – San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego – among the 13 high-intensity child prostitution areas in the nation.
But its state anti-trafficking laws are not as strong as they should be, advocates say.
A recent national study
gave California an “F” grade for its weak legislation against child sex trafficking. California’s human trafficking law criminalizes sex trafficking of minors, but requires proof of force, fraud, or coercion of the minor.
This is something that the CASE Act would change: It would remove the need to prove force to prosecute sex trafficking of a minor.
Daphne Phung, founder and executive director of California Against Slavery, who helped draft the act, said California’s weak legislation is an affront to victims of trafficking. “Not only are we not protecting the victims; we are victimizing them through our judicial system,” she observed.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, who helped launch the San Mateo County Zero Tolerance initiative on human trafficking, said we often think of trafficking as a problem in other countries.
“The dirty little secret,” she said, “is that there is a thriving business of pimps and gangs and mafias of every imaginable group that are in the business of trafficking young girls and young boys.”
Speier supported the 2010 campaign to remove the adult services section from Craigslist, but she recognized that efforts to “do away with adult services… didn’t do away with the problem because it migrated to other sites.”
The CASE Act would take Megan’s Law one step further, requiring sex traffickers to register as sex offenders, including through their electronic identifiers such as email addresses and IM handles.
“We needed to make the Internet a safer place,” explained Chris Kelly, former chief privacy officer for Facebook and founder of Safer California Foundation, which is funding the initiative.
The act would also mandate training for law enforcement officers, something that Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, said is desperately needed. As a police officer, Marvel worked a part of San Diego where the strip is, and came into contact with various women, he said, “not realizing that some of them could have been victims of human trafficking.”
“Without this key training,” he said, “it’s difficult for law enforcement to identify [trafficking victims].”
In September 2005, California enacted its ﬁrst anti-trafﬁcking law (AB 22) to make human trafﬁcking a felony in the state and provide assistance to victims. The law also established the California Alliance to Combat Trafﬁcking and Slavery Task Force to review California’s response to human trafﬁcking.
In its 2007 report, Human Trafﬁcking in California
, the task force found that there was a shortage in resources to provide adequate services to victims of trafficking; and that because of inconsistencies between federal and California trafficking laws, it was easier to prosecute traffickers under federal law. Under California law, trafficking also carries a lighter prison sentence (four to eight years for trafficking of a minor, and three to five years for trafficking of an adult) than offenses like kidnapping and rape – another reason not to prosecute traffickers under the state law.
For Albright-Byrd, the CASE Act is an attempt to address some of the shortcomings in California’s law, “so girls like me have the services and support they need,” she said.
Meanwhile, Albright-Byrd has founded her own organization to provide support groups for adult survivors of trafficking. The organization is called Bridget’s Dream, named after a friend she influenced to get into prostitution.
“Bridget Gray was a girl that I turned out,” said Albright-Byrd. “Eight years later, on her 22nd birthday, her life was taken by a john. He strangled her to death, dragged her naked body out into the hallway and left her there like she was trash. She was my friend,” she said. “I fight for all the girls like Bridget.”
Elena Shore is an editor and Spanish-language media monitor with New America Media, where this article originally appeared.