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Erasing the Past: Vacating Past Convictions for Victims of Sex Trafficking

April 2010

A bill pending before the New York State Senate is the first of its kind in the nation: a bill that would amend the criminal code to allow survivors of sex trafficking to vacate from their records criminal offenses stemming from their abuse, including prostitution and loitering.  The City Bar’s Sex and Law Committee published a report this month supporting the legislation, which it says is vital to reintegrating survivors and breaking cycles of victimization.

“Confirmed trafficking victims should not be punished for crimes that are the direct result of being trafficked,” states the Committee’s report on A.7670/S.4429, which was passed unanimously by the Assembly in early March. Survivors of sex trafficking often face obstacles to housing, employment, and citizenship applications because of their criminal records.  An application for legal status can be seriously jeopardized by a history of arrests and convictions for prostitution and related charges.  

“The remedy provided in this bill will do so much for victims of sex trafficking,” said Rachel Braunstein, Chair of the Sex and Law Committee.  “The bill re-frames the way these individuals and their experiences are viewed—they were not criminals, they were the victims of crimes. We strongly support this bill because of the relief it can provide to survivors to help them live safe and productive lives.”  

The Committee also urges that the definition of ‘official documentation’ of sex trafficking, as required by the bill, be interpreted as broadly as possible.  The bill requires that petitioners bringing the motion should provide “[o]fficial documentation of [their] status as a victim of sex trafficking or trafficking in persons at the time of the offense from a federal, state or local government agency.”  The Committee notes that survivors of sex trafficking “face a host of obstacles, from administrative hurdles to real risks to their safety,” that could make obtaining “official” documentation difficult.  

Additionally, because the definition of ‘sex trafficking’ is broader in the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 than in New York state law, some survivors who could not seek prosecution for their abuse under New York anti-trafficking law could nevertheless qualify for remedies presented in the bill, another reason that the Committee urges “swift” passage of the measure.

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