D&C: Why sex-trafficking victims may soon be getting some relief in New York

Chad Arnold
June 18, 2019

With days left in the legislative session, lawmakers are hoping to extend record relief for victims of human trafficking.

A bill making its way through the Legislature would allow victims of human trafficking to expunge criminal offenses related to their trafficking — including those in the sex and labor trades.

"These convictions should be vacated because of the circumstances of the offenses and convictions, not because of a victim's post-conviction circumstances," a memo attached to the bill reads.

Criminal convictions often hamper the lives of trafficking victims, making it difficult for them to pass a background check and apply for housing and jobs, said Sen. Jessica Ramos, D-Queens, the bill's sponsor.

The legislation was introduced last week as part of a package of bills that would decriminalize sex work in the state.

The bill is being pushed as it appears the effort to decriminalize prostitution is likely to not pass before the six-month legislative session ends this week.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday said decriminalizing prostitution is unlikely to happen anytime soon, calling the issue "controversial."

"I don't believe at this stage in the session you can pick up that bill, educate yourself on the issue and have reasonable conversation," Cuomo said on WAMC, a public-radio station in Albany.

Will it pass?

With just days left in the legislative session, Ramos hopes lawmakers see the urgency to vote on the measure extending relief to victims of trafficking.

"We're fighting to ensure that we are empowering them economically, that they are able to find other ways of making a living if they so choose," Ramos said.

The bill has already cleared the Senate and Assembly Codes committees, clearing the way for floor votes.

Similar legislation allowing victims of trafficking to vacate prostitution-related convictions directly connected to being trafficked passed in 2010.

Ramos' bill would go further, allowing any victim of trafficking to apply for relief for all crimes connected to their trafficking.

"I think that if we continue to make our case the way we have been, I think our Majority Leader (Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, Westchester County) will hear our plea and help us make it into law," Ramos said.

"We cannot let our brothers and sisters who have fallen victim to certain things be left behind," Sen. Jamaal Bailey, D-Bronx, said.

Bailey, who chairs the Senate's Code Committee, said the bill is "legally sound" and should be passed before lawmakers leave Albany.

The bill also has the backing of the Legal Aid Society, a public defenders group.

What about decriminalize sex work?

Ramos herself has said decriminalizing sex work in the state is unlikely to pass any time soon.

"We know that this is a long game — something we have to have a real conversation about as New Yorkers," she said.

"We've been sweeping the issue under the rug for such a long time that there's a lot of cobwebs to clean up."

The idea has been opposed by critics like Sanctuary for Families who have urged lawmakers to take a more-nuanced approach to the issue.

But the group does support providing relief for victims who have been trafficked.