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California Democrats resisted a child trafficking bill — until they couldn’t

This story appeared on Calmatters

Assembly Republicans convene during session at the state Capitol in Sacramento on July 13, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

In summary

California lawmakers tried nine times to stiffen penalties for trafficking of a minor. The latest effort appeared to die — until a social media campaign forced Democrats to reconsider.

It was a perfunctory committee hearing on a day full of them in the Legislature. The measure in question on Tuesday wasn’t novel, just another in a long list of attempts to reclassify a misdemeanor as a felony. Like most attempts before it, it met a quiet and undignified end.

The bill was new, but what it sought to do was not. Lawmakers from both parties had made numerous previous attempts to reclassify human trafficking of a minor for purposes of a commercial sex act as a “serious felony,” which would be treated as a strike under California’s Three Strikes law. 

In 2007, twice in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2017 and three times in 2021, legislators tried and failed to reclassify child sex trafficking. But then something strange happened after the latest effort went down.

A backlash swiftly took shape on social media. Comments ranged from “What on earth were these Democrats thinking?” to accusations that they were siding with pedophiles — and at least one Democratic member of the Assembly Public Safety Committee that quashed the bill reported receiving death threats.

Soon the bill, which had already passed the Senate unanimously, began collecting new, high-profile allies. Gov. Gavin Newsom at a press conference expressed dismay at its failure, telling reporters that he’d reach out to the bill’s Republican author, Sen. Shannon Grove of Bakersfield. Newly seated Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, a Salinas Democrat, also said he was “very much engaged” in trying to move the bill forward.

So on Thursday the Assembly Public Safety Committee took it up again. And on the second go-around, it passed.

Human trafficking of a minor for purposes of commercial sex under current law incurs a sentence of up to 12 years in prison. If the crime involved force, fear, fraud, deceit, coercion, violence, duress, menace, or threat of unlawful injury to the victim or to another person, the sentence is 15 years to life. If the person is convicted of inflicting great bodily harm on the victim while trafficking them, a judge can add up to 10 years to a prison sentence.

If the child trafficking bill passes the full Assembly and Newsom signs it, people convicted of the crime would face longer prison terms and potential life sentences.

The 48 hours between Tuesday’s original vote and Thursday’s session was yet another collision of California’s goals of reducing incarceration by moving away from tough-on-crime laws, and the political reality of negative advertising.

More than a decade ago, then-Assemblymember Richard Pan tried to add five new offenses related to human trafficking and the abuse of a child to the serious felony list.

The 2011 measure never made it out of committee. Pan, a Democrat who was in both the Assembly and Senate, said he was not sure what was different this time. 

“Sometimes you never know what gets the attention of the public,” Pan said. “There are these tensions (between reducing the prison population and harsher sentences). 

“But we don’t start off by saying abusing children is not a serious crime.”

Some progressive lawmakers have opposed toughening penalties for sex trafficking because they were persuaded that it would contribute to the over-incarceration of Black people, and needlessly extend already-significant prison sentences —costing taxpayers more money while demonstrating little public benefit. Opponents also have contended that harsher sentences may end up being applied to people at the lowest rungs of trafficking, who may be trafficked themselves.

“There is no evidence that long prison sentences deter or prevent crime,” the advocacy group Sister Warriors Freedom Coalition wrote in opposition to the bill. “If anything, low-level individuals involved in human trafficking will be prosecuted under this legislation, many of them will be prosecuted for conduct done under duress or other pressures, and they will be easily and swiftly replaced.”

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Shannon Grove

R

Shannon Grove

State Senate, District 12 (Bakersfield)


Shannon Grove

State Senate, District 12 (Bakersfield)

How she voted 2021-2022
Liberal
Conservative

District 12 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem

29%
GOP

45%
No party

19%

Campaign Contributions

Sen. Shannon Grove has taken at least
$547,000
from the Finance, Insurance & Real Estate
sector since she was elected to the legislature. That represents
10%
of her total campaign contributions.

Heath Flora

R

Heath Flora

State Assembly, District 9 (Ripon)


Heath Flora

State Assembly, District 9 (Ripon)

How he voted 2021-2022
Liberal
Conservative

District 9 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem

33%
GOP

40%
No party

19%

Campaign Contributions

Asm. Heath Flora has taken at least
$447,000
from the Health
sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents
15%
of his total campaign contributions.

Reggie Jones-Sawyer

D

Reggie Jones-Sawyer

State Assembly, District 57 (Los Angeles)


Reggie Jones-Sawyer

State Assembly, District 57 (Los Angeles)

How he voted 2021-2022
Liberal
Conservative

District 57 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem

64%
GOP

6%
No party

23%

Campaign Contributions

Asm. Reggie Jones-Sawyer has taken at least
$2 million
from the Labor
sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents
31%
of his total campaign contributions.

Mia Bonta

D

Mia Bonta

State Assembly, District 18 (Oakland)


Mia Bonta

State Assembly, District 18 (Oakland)

How she voted 2021-2022
Liberal
Conservative

District 18 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem

69%
GOP

5%
No party

21%

Campaign Contributions

Asm. Mia Bonta has taken at least
$537,000
from the Labor
sector since she was elected to the legislature. That represents
26%
of her total campaign contributions.

Liz Ortega

D

Liz Ortega

State Assembly, District 20 (Hayward)


Liz Ortega

State Assembly, District 20 (Hayward)

District 20 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem

57%
GOP

13%
No party

25%

Campaign Contributions

Asm. Liz Ortega has taken at least
$596,000
from the Labor
sector since she was elected to the legislature. That represents
55%
of her total campaign contributions.

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But nuance like that can be difficult, if not impossible, to persuasively convey in a political campaign — and this was an issue conservatives knew they could weaponize against Democrats. The fallout was quick and fierce after Democratic members of the Assembly Public Safety Committee abstained from voting on the bill Tuesday, effectively blocking it.

“You can choose a team, pick pedophiles or children,” Assemblymember Heath Flora, a Ripon Republican, said Thursday morning.

Insults, threats to California Democrats

“I think certainly the thousands of social media texts we got, and me personally, the two death threats I got and the death threats made against my children certainly raised a level of concern in terms of making sure we had some resolution to this bill at this moment right now,” Assemblymember Mia Bonta, an Oakland Democrat, told CalMatters.

The volume from Twitter, Republicans and some Democrats led at least one committee member to change her mind.

“On Tuesday, I made a bad decision,” Assemblymember Liz Ortega, a Hayward Democrat, wrote Thursday on Twitter. “Voting against legislation targeting really bad people who traffic children was wrong. I regret doing that and I am going to help get this important legislation passed into law.”

Ultimately Bonta and Assemblymember Isaac Bryant both abstained from voting on the bill in the Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing on Thursday. Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat and chair of the committee, said the vote on Thursday was so markedly different from Tuesday’s vote because questions he had about the bill were answered in the interim. 

Republicans on child trafficking bill

Noting the death threats against Bonta, Jones-Sawyer said in a hallway interview that the “Trumpian hate … is just wrong.”  

“You can have an honest debate, but, my god, you should not threaten a woman because of her personal feelings on an issue,” he said.

After the bill cleared the Assembly Public Safety Committee, Republican legislators celebrated the victory in a state where they rarely get to do so. 

“In the end, my Democrat colleagues in the Assembly Public Safety Committee did the right thing and passed (the bill) that will make sure repeat offenders of child sex trafficking are held accountable,” said Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones, a San Diego Republican. “If it were not for the extraordinary pushback from figures around the state and nation, I fear the Democrats’ one-party rule and some of their radical ideologies would have prevailed.”

The bill’s author, Grove, said in a statement that she expects the cooperation of Assembly Democrats should the bill reach the floor – its next stop is the Assembly Appropriations Committee. 

“Protecting victims of child sex trafficking should not be a partisan issue,” Grove said. “Today is a victory for every survivor.”

CalMatters newsletter writer Lynn La contributed to this report.

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