NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Trafficking victims who sell sex, drugs or steal in the United States often end up with criminal records that make it hard to find jobs or rent a home, legal experts and activists said on Thursday, calling for reform to help them rebuild their lives.
Most arrests and convictions are for prostitution, which is illegal across the United States, and come up in background searches, whatever the circumstances of the crime, the anti-slavery charity Polaris and two law schools said in a report.
“At present, we have a patchwork system which is different in every state and can be difficult to navigate, is unresponsive to the impact of trauma, or is simply unworkable,” said the report, co-authored with the American Bar Association.
Some 1.5 million people in the United States are victims of trafficking, according to anti-trafficking groups.
States were given letter grades with the highest - only a “B” - going to the Midwest state of Nebraska, which allows trafficking survivors to clear their records of convictions, arrests and of cases that were not prosecuted.
Unlike most states, Nebraska’s law goes beyond sex crimes to include drug offences and theft that may have been committed while the victim was being trafficked.
“These laws can’t be limited to prostitution or prostitution-related offences,” Kate Mogulescu of Brooklyn Law School, one of the report’s authors, told a news conference.
The majority of U.S. states received an “F” - some of them making survivors wait years before they can apply for their records to be cleared - or no grade at all because they do not offer any record relief to adult survivors of trafficking.
As there is no nationwide court system where survivors can apply have their records cleared, infractions must be cleared individually wherever the case was adjudicated, the report said.
And while the majority of states now have laws on the books to aid trafficking victims with their criminal records, the federal government does not.
“We need a federal law. A lot of these women and boys are being arrested on federal crimes,” said Beth Jacobs, a survivor who was a consultant on the report.
Despite the poor grades given to the vast majority of states, Bradley Myles, chief executive of Polaris, said he believed there is reason to be optimistic.
“It’s a positive story,” he said. “In the last nine years, 41 states made some progress on this.”
Reporting by Jason Fields; Editing by Katy Migiro; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org