The CASE Act: Protection or Persecution?

Commentary,  Sonya Mann

An overwhelming number of California voters, 81 percent, supported Proposition 35 (also called the CASE Act), which expands legal protections for victims of sex trafficking, and specifies harsher punishments for their pimps. The landslide victory for the measure probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that on the surface it sounded like the right thing to do.  After all, how many people are willing to say they oppose harsher penalties for criminals who force underage victims into sexual slavery?

However, the language of the CASE Act, especially in sections defining what actually constitutes sex trafficking, is worryingly vague.  The nation’s largest independent public television station,  Community Educational Television (KCET) picked up on this, posting on their website: “This measure actually threatens innocent people by broadening the definition of pimping:  Anyone receiving financial support from consensual prostitution among adults, including a sex worker’s children or spouse, could be prosecuted as a human trafficker. If convicted, they would have to register as a sex offender for life.”

The prospect of rights violations wasn’t lost on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, or the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who recently filed a joint federal class-action lawsuit contesting the constitutionality of enforcing Proposition 35.

According to City-Data.com, Richmond is already home to roughly 170 registered sex offenders. If you include the innumerable sex workers who live here as well, the CASE Act could have a serious ripple effect on the lives of many Richmond citizens.

According to Lt. French of the Richmond Police Department, sex trafficking is a big issue in Richmond.

“We have a few areas where it’s happening, with the biggest being the 23rd Street corridor. Anything that will bring more sentencing (for this crime), we are all for it. We hope that with people knowing they will get more time for these crimes, it will prevent them from doing it. As well as keeping people locked up longer so they can’t continue to commit these crimes.”

But some advocates say the law will have consequences for communities of color that go beyond punishment for those committing the crimes.

The group Black Women for Wellness, a non profit based in Los Angeles, voiced its concerns with the law, on the point that, “People of color, queer, immigrant, and low-income communities that are already unfairly targeted by the criminal justice system for prostitution,” may now face extra risk because of the CASE Act.

The text of the law does address this concern, albeit briefly: “The total circumstances, including the age of the victim, [and] the relationship between the victim and the trafficker … shall be factors to consider in determining the presence of ‘deprivation or violation of the personal liberty of another.’”  Apparently this passage does little to reassure the many sex workers who have vehemently spoken out against Proposition 35.

Another widely criticized section of the CASE Act requires that all registered sex offenders provide the Justice Department with a list detailing their Internet activities. This list would include every “Internet service provider” and “Internet identifier” used by a given sex offender. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website says: “While the law is written very unclearly, this likely includes email addresses, usernames and other identifiers used for online political discussion groups, book and restaurant review sites, forums about medical conditions, and newspaper or blog comments.”

The article goes on to say: “Proposition 35’s online speech regulations are overly broad and violate the First Amendment, both because they prohibit anonymous speech and because the reporting requirements burden all sorts of online speech, even when the speaker is using his own real name as a screen name.”

Hopefully the Case Act will be used as it was intended, to target child  sex trafficking rather than persecute willing sex workers and by extension, their innocent family members who the sex work may be helping to support, financially.

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