CA’s loitering law is actively harmful to trafficking survivors
Over the past two decades, The Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) has supported thousands of survivors through every phase of their journey from emergency response and counseling to legal resources, to housing, to educational and leadership training and mentorship. Through these programs, CAST has helped empower survivors to overcome their traumatic pasts and become leading voices in shaping policy and public awareness to ultimately put an end to the fastest growing criminal enterprise of the 21st century.
CAST’s legal team spends countless time and money working to clear the criminal records of survivors who were forced to commit crimes or arrested in the name of outreach. Many of our clients who reach out to CAST for assistance with escaping from their trafficker call us because they are fearful of being arrested or abused by law enforcement.
As an agency we are deeply committed to a human-rights framework and the public health model of intervention and prevention based on the direct feedback we receive from survivors in our programs. CAST understands that human trafficking requires action on economic, gender, and racial justice, workers’ rights, and access to safe housing and healthcare. It is our mission to develop and advance trauma-informed, evidence-based practices that center the voices of survivors, and we have developed incredibly successful programs that partner with healthcare and government agencies that intervene and offer critical, trauma-informed support to survivors that do not rely on carceral systems.
We know that 653.22 is ineffective, harmful, and has not been used to efficiently target traffickers.
CAST supports SB 357, a measure that will repeal California Penal Code § 653.22, which criminalizes loitering for the intent to engage in prostitution. This penal code is subjective in application, largely ineffective, and most importantly, actively harmful to survivors. SB 357 will ensure safety for survivors who have been subjected to the targeted and discriminatory policing of communities of color and enable those who have been convicted using this law to clear their names.
The broad subjective nature of the anti-loitering law has created opportunities for law enforcement to engage in discriminatory policing that targets Black and Brown women and members of the transgender community. This law can lead to a person being targeted because of the clothing they are wearing, how they are speaking with other pedestrians, where or how they stand, or for their gender or color of their skin. For instance, Black adults accounted for 56.1% of the § 653.22 charges in Los Angeles between 2017-2019, despite only making up 8.9% of the city’s population. By repealing Section 653.22, SB 357 eliminates a law that allows police to rely on bias rather than evidence to criminalize otherwise legal activities like walking, dressing or standing in public, and results in the harassment of vulnerable communities. The laws that guide the public health and safety of our communities should be grounded in a way that do not allow implicit bias to lead enforcement practices.
One thing that CAST has heard from our clients on countless occasions is that being arrested was not only traumatizing and revictimizing, but created insurmountable barriers to seeking employment, safe housing, and immigration relief.
While CAST believes that all agencies in support and in opposition of SB 357 have the desire to end the horrendous crime that is human trafficking, we know that 653.22 is ineffective, harmful, and has not been used to efficiently target traffickers. Data from Los Angles shows that the persons arrested under this law are cis and trans women of color who are most often sex workers and trafficking survivors, not buyers or traffickers. Utilizing arrest through the loitering statute to identify survivors or offer services is not an ethical means of outreach.
A core tenet of human trafficking is that traffickers utilize force, fraud, and coercion to control their victims. We replicate these circumstances when we threaten survivors with prosecution under this law to incentivize them to cooperate or provide information. By threatening arrest and incarceration, we show survivors that they cannot trust our systems, that they are not there to protect them. These practices only make it more difficult for survivors to trust the services that are available to them such as housing, healthcare, and counseling. When we sow harm, we reap well deserved distrust. We must begin the process of repairing our systems that cause harm, starting with SB 357.
This archaic law can lead to compounding, disproportionate and life-altering consequences. One thing that CAST has heard from our clients on countless occasions is that being arrested was not only traumatizing and revictimizing, but created insurmountable barriers to seeking employment, safe housing, and immigration relief.
Traffickers rely on our systems to criminalize victims so that they are unable to access safety due to their records and are vulnerable to continued exploitation. The impact of these encounters with law enforcement reinforce already heightened stigma when someone is arrested for this offense due to the difficulties securing employment and safe housing with an arrest record relating to sex work. Violation of this discriminatory law also puts immigrants in jeopardy of deportation, loss of residency, or denial of re-entry due to a misdemeanor conviction.
There are still many points of intervention available to law enforcement to investigate trafficking without arresting those who have not committed a crime as this penal code allow them to do. Our position on SB 357 is grounded in the feedback we have received from survivors as well as our demonstrated success in non-carceral programming. Our own emergency response program has assisted 265 survivors with escape since 2020 with only 1% of those calls being facilitated by law enforcement.
We also know that survivors interface regularly with healthcare staff without being identified so we have developed partnerships with local hospitals to increase training and direct advocate response to potential victims. CAST’s legal team spends countless time and money working to clear the criminal records of survivors who were forced to commit crimes or arrested in the name of outreach. Many of our clients who reach out to CAST for assistance with escaping from their trafficker call us because they are fearful of being arrested or abused by law enforcement.
When we sow harm, we reap well deserved distrust. We must begin the process of repairing our systems that cause harm, starting with SB 357.
We believe that to end human trafficking we must reduce harm for all populations who are vulnerable to exploitation and create community models of care. We invite those who work in the anti-trafficking movement to work together to listen to the survivors who have been harmed by these systems, examine best practices, and ensure our legal systems are trauma-informed. We encourage those who care to envision with us a world where we utilize our existing resources to ensure survivors and other vulnerable populations can access services without being criminalized. We implore you to join us in supporting SB 357.
Leigh LaChapelle (they/them) is a service provider and survivor currently working as the Associate Director of Survivor Advocacy at CAST.
The Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) is a Los Angeles–based nonprofit organization that is working to put an end to human trafficking through comprehensive, life-transforming services to survivors and a platform to advocate for groundbreaking policies and legislation.
Issues: Criminal Justice & Policing, Racial and Economic Justice, Reproductive Justice & Gender Equity