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Prostitution Bill Passes but Held in Senate Over Doubts Raised in Passionate Debate on Assembly Floor

Last week, the Assembly and the Senate approved a controversial bill to legalized loitering for the purpose of prostitution, but shockingly the bill’s author didn’t give the bill to the governor for his signature. Instead, Senate Scott Wiener delayed sending SB 357 to Gavin Newsom until next January in order to garner more support. 

It seems the senator was rattled by the opposition he received on the bill in the Assembly last Friday when SB 357 passed by only one vote, with several Democrats expressing concern the bill would endanger sex-trafficked minors. All 19 Republicans voted “no” along with nine Democrats. But another 10 Democrats refused to vote for SB 357, which has the same effect as voting no. 

Senate Wiener and the bill sponsors, ACLU California Action and Equality California, had been arguing for months that the bill was needed to stop police from “harassing” minority women and transgendered identified individuals simply for looking like they were involved in prostitution. 

Democrat legislators repeated those arguments on the floor. Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-San Ramon) said it was wrong that police have a “license to profile people.” Assemblyman Ash Kalra said arresting prostitutes isn’t a good way to help them; offering services to women in need is a better approach. Assemblywoman Akilah Weber (D – San Diego) said no one should be arrested unless they are caught in the act of soliciting for prostitution. 

Assembly Floor debate on SB 357 on Friday, September 10th.

But those arguments didn’t convince Democrats like Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Irvine) who believed the bill would further endanger exploited women and girls. “We often vote on very well-intentioned legislation that has unintended consequences,” she said. “For me, the unintended consequence is making it more difficult to protect victims of child trafficking, even if that is a possibility.” 

Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D – Elk Grove), a former police officer himself, listed some of the unintended consequences of trafficking legislation passed over the last several years that has left police helpless to rescue sex-trafficked minors. “You can’t detain a juvenile suspected of being involved in prostitution. We banned that,” Cooper reminded legislators (SB 1322 in 2016).  “You also can’t interview a minor. So how do you rescue a minor that is being human trafficked if you can’t detain them, you can’t interview them, that was passed here, to save them from a pimp?” 

Sex traffickers “use minors a lot. How does law enforcement tackle that?” he asked. “Because the way the laws are written and the laws that have been passed, there really is no way to tackle it and deal with it.” 

Cooper then explained that when police approach minors being trafficked now, “lots of minors you come up and they give you the finger and walk off because they have been told by their pimps we can’t talk to you,” Cooper explained. “Don’t talk to the cops – ignore the cops. That’s why pimps are better off using minors, “because you can detain an adult much simpler than you can a minor.”

Revealing his frustration, Cooper also criticized legislators for being more interested in talking about fighting trafficking than actually passing laws to fight it. “In California today, right now human trafficking of a minor, pimping a little kid, isn’t considered a violent felony,” Cooper complained. “If you pimp a kid guess what? Because of California’s laws you get released early from prison, which is also asinine. … Let’s not just talk the talk, but walk the walk.” 

Republicans also rose to speak out against SB 357. Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R – Fresno) said law enforcement in his district works in coordination with anti-trafficking non-profits to save sex-trafficked minors and women. “When we separate the victim on the street with the pimp down the block and around the corner,” he said. “They are not going to jail, they are going to a safe house. They are going to a place that cares for them.”

Assembly members Suzette Martinez Valladares (R – Santa Clarita) and Kelly Seyarto (R – Murrieta) both said SB 357 wasn’t going to make anyone safer. “SB 357 will undermine the ability of law enforcement officers to investigate human sex trafficking and bring sex traffickers to justice,” Valladares said. “We need to be giving law enforcement more tools to stop human trafficking, not less. … We need to be working on bills and policies that make our communities safer. This does not do that.” 

After SB 357 passed the Assembly on Friday, the last day of the legislative session, it went immediately to Senate where it passed by six votes, Republicans all voting no and 5 Democrats not voting. After Wiener’s legislative victory, everyone assumed he would send the bill to Governor Newsom’s desk for consideration. But in a very rare move, he decided to hold the bill in the Senate and send it to the governor in January. Wiener’s Communication Director Catie Steward released the following statement explaining the decision to the Sacramento Bee

“Senator Wiener will send the bill to the Governor after the Legislature reconvenes in January instead of immediately. Holding the bill at the Senate desk is simply a temporary delay. It provides the Senator and our coalition more time to make the case about why this civil rights bill is good policy that should be signed into law and why this discriminatory loitering crime goes against California values and needs to be repealed.” 

Several days before last Friday’s vote on SB 357, sex-trafficking survivors held a press conference, organized by the California Family Council, on the south steps of the capitol tomorrow to protest the bill to legalize loitering for the purpose of prostitution, the most dangerous way to engage in sex trafficking.

“Police officers need to be trained on how to better spot [sex trafficking], not eliminated,” sex trafficking survivor Brianna said. ” They need to be trained on the signs to look for. They need to stop people that they see. … Because without that, people like me would be dead.”

Sex trafficking survivor Hannah also spoke at the press conference regarding the important role police play in the fight against sexual exploitation. “With trauma-informed training and identification tactics, officers are an invaluable asset to the war against human trafficking,” she said.

For more information regarding SB 357 and the fight to defeat SB 357 go here.

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