Article Written by Nasim Chatha, MVLS Communications and Community Relations Officer
Human trafficking is the act of moving people by threat, coercion, violence or deception in order to exploit them. According to the United Nations, people are trafficked for prostitution, forced labor, slavery and removal of organs. Hundreds of victims of trafficking are identified in Maryland every year, mostly women and girls, many found near interstate and international transit hubs.
Identifying and getting help to victims of trafficking is important, but survivors need a path to independence. For a survivor of coerced prostitution, getting a cleaner criminal record may be the difference between moving on in life and staying in sex work. Criminal convictions can keep someone from qualifying for housing, and they can cause employers to immediately disqualify job applicants. Survivors may see sex work as the only feasible way to get by, even if they would like very badly to stop.
This year, Maryland passed a bill allowing the vacatur of the criminal convictions that easily accumulate for a victim of sex trafficking. Prostitution was already eligible for vacatur, and now related convictions like trespassing and drug possession may also be vacated, and thus removed from criminal records. (Depending on the county, police may actually use the charge of prostitution very infrequently, instead relying on other charges like “disorderly conduct.”)
Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) recently formed a partnership with the University of Baltimore Law School to expand the capabilities of the already existing Human Trafficking Prevention Project (HTPP) clinic. HTPP helps survivors of trafficking get the legal services they need to address the collateral consequences of their criminal justice involvement. MVLS will be leveraging our staff and volunteer capabilities to help HTPP take full advantage of all that the law can do for victims of sex trafficking, including expungement, shielding, and vacatur.
To take advantage of the vacatur rule, survivors will need to demonstrate to judges that they have been trafficked. Those who stand to benefit include very young people as well as people who have been living with trafficking-related charges on their records for decades. They are people of all genders. Some come from here in Maryland, and others from different states and countries.
Casey*, a 24-year-old woman who was drugged and manipulated by her first trafficker in her early teen years, succeeded in getting a Maryland judge to grant her the vacatur of her criminal record. She told NPR reporters, “I’m not ever going to forget what I’ve done or what I’ve gone through.” Even though her clean record won’t erase her troubled past, she suggests it will ease her path forward. “I don’t want it thrown in my face every time I’m trying to seek employment,” she said. “I don’t want to have to explain myself every time.”
Casey was represented by Jessica Emerson, the professor who runs the HTPP clinic at the University of Baltimore law school. Emerson and her partners in Maryland’s legal services organizations have been pushing for vacatur laws to be expanding for years, resulting in the 2016 bill allowing victims of sex trafficking to vacate not just prostitution, but related charges for crimes which they may have been coerced into committing. Under the new partnership, MVLS volunteer attorneys will be tapped to put this new law to work, and to greatly expand number of people that HTPP is able to help.
Ultimately, this project may be helping to rid pimps and traffickers of one of their main tools of control. Bradley Myles, Director of the Polaris Project, says that “Traffickers use the criminalization of a victim as another way to gain power over that victim, and remind them of the hopelessness of their road back.” HTPP gives people with histories of coerced prostitution reason to start hoping. Casey is now attending college and living with family in Texas. “I want to provide my son with a good life,” she said. “It might not be the most extravagant. I don’t want to be rich. I just want to live a better life than I have lived.”
*Not her real name
Interested in volunteering with the Human Trafficking Prevention Project? HTPP is building a panel of volunteer attorneys who can help with expungement, shielding, vacatur, and federal and state pardon. To join, please contact Susan Francis or (443) 451-4084. HTPP will be holding a volunteer training in the spring of 2017, more information to come.