By Amy Isackson
As Carissa Phelps got ready for a five kilometer walk to support Proposition 35 one recent Saturday afternoon, she looked out at the San Diego Bay and remembered what led her to walk the streets as a 12-year-old prostitute. “When my step-dad propositioned my sister who was turning 18 to … sell her virginity for her to someone,” she said.
After that she says she dropped out of seventh grade in Coalinga, near Fresno, and ran away. She soon met a pimp named Icey.
Phelps says he seemed nice and offered her a place when she had nowhere else to stay. “All of your friends at school are gone. All of your siblings are gone. Your bike is gone,” she described. “Your clothes are gone and so, you just feel like you’re trash. You eat out of the trash. You beg for a box of macaroni and cheese.”
One night with Icey turned into 10. And so began a criminal life that would take Phelps three years to escape.
It’s stories like Phelps’ that inspired Daphne Phung to quit her job as a corporate accountant and sink her life savings into crafting and supporting Prop. 35.
Phung gave the send off for a few hundred people — including Phelps — who turned out to walk and raise money in support of the proposition.
Phung and former Facebook executive Chris Kelly are the measure’s main backers, and Kelly is the principal funder. He’s donated about $1.8 million. An Alameda County Deputy District Attorney helped write the proposition.
As the walk gets underway, Phung tells me her inspiration for the measure came from an MSNBC documentary about sex trafficking that she saw one night. It tugged at her conscience. “I couldn’t sleep that night. I just felt like, ‘oh my goodness, something needs to be done about it,’” she said. “And I heard this voice, like God was whispering to me, telling me, ‘Daphne, stop complaining and do something about it.’ And I said, ‘Well, what?’ Well, the initiative process.”
Proposition 35 would tackle all kinds of domestic and international trafficking — labor, forced prostitution and the production of child pornography. It raises penalties for traffickers — anyone who forces a person into sex work or other labor.
Right now, sentences range from three to eight years. But they can be more with criminal enhancements.
The new law could put people away for life.
Prop. 35 mandates that police officers take two hours of human trafficking training and forces all sex traffickers to register as sex offenders.
And it requires all sex offenders file their online identities with the authorities, much as Megan’s Law requires that sex offenders provide their physical addresses.
The scope of human trafficking in California is difficult to quantify.
Until now, no agency has counted all arrests statewide, although California’s Attorney General plans to release statistics later this year.
California has had anti-trafficking laws on the books since 2005.
Phung hopes Prop 35 will further deter people, just as the fear of a stiff ticket kept her out of the carpool lane when she was running late in bad traffic. “I had to reason with myself if it is worth it to go to the carpool lane,” she said. “And that is what we are trying to do. I want the traffickers to think twice before they do it.”
However, many law enforcement authorities say they’ve never met a criminal who looked up sentencing laws before committing a crime.
Politically, it’s difficult to oppose a proposition that boosts sentences for sex traffickers.
But many prosecutors, defense attorneys, civil libertarians and legal scholars say existing laws are adequate. While Prop 35 is well-meaning, they say, it has unintended consequences. They say the law actually could put women in danger, make it more difficult to prosecute traffickers and infringe on constitutional rights.
San Diego County’s District Attorney is particularly concerned about changes the measure would make to the evidence code.
One change says that if a human trafficking victim is forced into prostitution by a pimp, the victim cannot be held criminally liable. While this is intended to protect victims from being seen as criminals, Gretchen Means, San Diego Deputy District Attorney, says it could make the law against misdemeanor prostitution unenforceable. That would leave prostitutes on the streets.
“When girls don’t face any liability whatsoever,” she says, “there’s nothing to … keep them safe.”
Means says, in many cases, those misdemeanor prostitution arrests are the only way to get trafficking victims out of their pimp’s clutches and into the system where they can get help.
Meanwhile, others criticize Prop 35’s requirement to register all online names. ACLU legislative director Francisco Lobaco says this move would infringe on free speech. In an informational hearing posted on YouTube, he says, “Because it means that a person who was convicted decades ago of a relatively minor sex offense such as indecent exposure … must now must inform the police of any name he or she uses.”
While most applaud Proposition 35’s intent to protect victims and punish traffickers, many worry the measure’s finer points may have just the opposite effect.
Nevertheless, Robert Fellmeth, a law professor at the University of San Diego, says his support for stiffer sentencing overrides his concerns. “Don’t let the perfect drive out the good,” he says, adding that, if need be, the legislature can amend the proposition.
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