U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) last week introduced a bill that would vacate and expunge non-violent criminal convictions for crimes committed by human trafficking survivors while they were in captivity.
Gillibrand introduced the bill – dubbed the “Trafficking Survivors Relief Act” – along with her Republican colleague U.S. Senator Robert Portman (R-Ohio), according to a release shared first with amNewYork Metro. This is the second go around for the bill after Gillibrand previously introduced it in 2020.
The senator said her bill is meant to address a common trend of human trafficking survivors being charged with crimes like conspiracy, prostitution and drug trafficking they were forced to commit by their captors. Being charged with these crimes, she added, then makes it more difficult for survivors to rebuild their lives after escaping being trafficked.
“All too often, victims of human trafficking are forced by their captors to commit crimes. These victims cannot refuse and then face criminal charges,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “Congress has a responsibility to end this injustice. The Trafficking Survivors Relief Act would clear the non-violent criminal convictions of trafficking survivors and help them rebuild their lives with a fresh start.”
Portman said that he has, on many occasions, heard stories from trafficking survivors of how they were coerced into committing crimes while being trafficked. He echoed the idea that the bill aims to help survivors have a clean slate when they’re trying rebuild their lives.
“During my time in the Senate I have met with many brave trafficking survivors in Ohio who have told me about how they were forced into commercial sex and then charged with a crime,” Portman said in a statement. “We must understand the coercive nature of trafficking and find a way to offer relief to victims as they recover from the unimaginable trauma of being trafficked and sexually abused. This legislation is aimed at helping survivors get a fresh start as they build a life and overcome obstacles after being in the criminal justice system.”
The legislation would also allow for courts to consider a victim’s status as a trafficking survivor when doling out sentences for violent crimes; require U.S. attorneys to report on the number of motions filed under the bill one year after it takes effect; direct the U.S. Government Accountability Office to conduct a report three years after the legislation’s enactment on the number of claims filed and the number sentences vacated or expunged under its jurisdiction; and allow federal grant funding to be used for legal representation post conviction.
Gillibrand highlighted the Trafficking Survivors Relief Act earlier this year with state Attorney General Letitia James, along with another piece of legislation – the “Put Trafficking Victims First Act” – that would require the U.S. Attorney General to study human trafficking issues and better support victims.
According to a report from the Neal Davis Law Firm based on 2019 data, the most recent year available, there are roughly 40.3 million current human trafficking victims worldwide; and New York had the fourth highest number of trafficking cases out of the 50 states in 2019.
The bill, however, may have a steep hill to climb in the 50-49 Senate, especially since Arizona U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema just left the Democratic Party to become an independent caucusing with Democrats. But Gillibrand’s office told amNewYork Metro that Sinema is likely to vote with Democrats most of the time and the bill’s chances of passing are bolstered by its bipartisan support.
“The Trafficking Survivors Relief Act has bipartisan support and I’m hopeful we can pass it in the Senate,” Gillibrand said.
This story was updated at 5:16 p.m. on Monday Dec. 12, 2022.