A woman was working in a new job when her boss showed her a stack of papers, asking, “What’s this?” It was her criminal record, but she didn’t know how to explain that prostitution arrests happened because she had been forced by a trafficker. The single mother of a 3-year-old had to start the job hunt all over again, the Christian Science Monitor reports. She had been labeled a prostitute and a criminal by a system that hadn’t recognized how young she was and how she was being manipulated. “To have that record on the books, it’s like a lifetime of stigma,” says Meredith Dank of the Exploitation and Resiliency Project at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Survivors can’t get a license for nursing or social work, for instance, unless they “go in front of a committee and explain,… which is incredibly traumatizing.”
There has been a paradigm shift in the understanding of human trafficking. As survivors have spoken out about the coercion that traffickers employ, most states have passed laws that give minors “safe harbor” from criminal prosecution for prostitution. Advocates saw signs of progress in Monday’s decision by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to commute the life sentence of Cyntoia Brown, who was being trafficked as a teen and was convicted of murdering a man who had paid to use her for sex. Some minors are still prosecuted, and many trafficking survivors have been living in the shadow of their records for decades. That’s where “criminal-records relief” laws come in, offering a chance to erase unjust convictions. New York’s pioneering law offering the sealing or expungement of records has been in place since 2010. Some 42 states plus the District of Columbia have followed. Some laws provide for “vacatur,” a court’s acknowledgment that the person should not have been convicted.