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Amendments to Senate Trafficking Bill Pose New Problems for Victims, Advocates Say

Emily Crockett

The Senate passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act in a 99-0 vote late last week, after a protracted, bitter debate over a provision restricting abortion care for underage sex trafficking victims. But some reproductive rights advocates say that the bipartisan compromise is nothing to celebrate.

The Senate passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA) in a 99-0 vote late last week, after a protracted, bitter debate over a provision restricting abortion care for underage sex trafficking victims.

Some reproductive rights advocates say that the bipartisan compromise is nothing to celebrate—that there are major problems not just with the underlying bill and its problematic compromise on abortion, but also with some of its new amendments.

Advocates for sex workers and homeless youth, for example, say the JVTA focuses too much on expanding law enforcement and too little on funding services for young people who are vulnerable to exploitation. The law is also large and unwieldy, they say, with lots of different ideas thrown into the mix that may not be carefully thought out or tested.

“It’s packaged as the anti-trafficking bill of the year,” Kate D’Adamo, national policy advocate at the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project, told Rewire. “It makes it really difficult to advocate for thoughtful anti-trafficking work when everything is being lumped together—the good, the bad, and the very, very, ugly.”

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One amendment in particular could prove very, very ugly for both trafficking victims and Internet freedom, advocates fear.

The JVTA contains a version of the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act, which civil liberties and free speech advocates oppose because they say it would wrongly target web hosts and publishers for the criminal activity of their users by expanding the definition of trafficking to include advertising.

“In general, the owners of websites and online publications cannot be held criminally liable for the things that random people post,” Elizabeth Nolan Brown reports at Reason. “Under the new rules, however, these entities could be charged as sex traffickers if it turns out any trafficking victims are advertised on the site.”

It’s not clear whether the law would be interpreted that way. But according to Emma Llanso at the Center for Democracy and Technology, the mere threat that it could be creates a “chilling effect” that would make hosts less willing to post user content, or even to screen for criminal activity.

The bill’s sponsors are interested in shutting down sites like Backpage.com, but D’Adamo notes that many youth don’t advertise there. They post on Facebook or Twitter. That means the SAVE Act could threaten the most popular and ubiquitous social media hubs with crippling lawsuits, she says, and make sex work more dangerous for people who usually advertise there.

“It absolutely marginalizes people and forces them into street-based work,” D’Adamo said.

It’s also “shocking” that lawmakers would do it this way, she added, because law enforcement often depends on sites like Backpage to track people as part of their anti-trafficking work.

Some other major amendments to the bill aim to make it more victim-focused, and D’Adamo says that a few seem likely to succeed. One provision could help weaken the parental rights of rapists; another would allow victims to wipe their previous criminal record clean.

Another, Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) Stopping Exploitation Through Trafficking Act (SETT), is more complicated.

The act encourages states to pass “safe harbor” laws that aim to make sure trafficking victims are treated like victims, not criminals. But the legislation doesn’t give states specific guidelines on what those laws should entail, and the language may be too weak to fully protect youth from traumatizing encounters with law enforcement, advocates feel.

Human Trafficking Center associate Lauren Jekowsky writes that safe harbor laws at the state level “have proven to be largely ineffective in most cases due to their incompleteness, poor implementation, and lack of resources and need to be strengthened.”

SETT’s language, D’Adamo said, encourages “diversion” of youth to social services, and discourages charging or prosecution.

“But both of those happen after arrest,” she said. “So they’re still predicated on the basic trauma and violence of policing and arrest that youth experience, and that youth identify as traumatic.”

And some of these “diversion” programs, D’Adamo said, still involve mandatory detention or court appearances.

The whole process of passing the JVTA, D’Adamo said, shows that anti-trafficking legislation is
“just as politicized as anything else.”

“If you can attach an amendment to get a vote, it doesn’t matter who you harm in the process.”

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify Emma Llanso’s employer.

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