SAN DIEGO — Local leaders on Thursday called on state officials to repeal a bill passed last year that decriminalized loitering with the intent to engage in sex work, arguing that the measure has made it more difficult for law enforcement to address the issue of sex trafficking.
This comes days after a multi-agency human trafficking operation in San Diego and National City that led to the arrest of 48 alleged traffickers and buyers, as well as the rescue of 16 individuals, including eight minors.
The Safer Streets for All Act, or SB 357, was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom last July and took effect in January. The purpose of the measure, advocates say, was to address the disproportionate impact that previous enforcement of the misdemeanor had on Black and transgender communities.
The bill was backed by over 60 civil rights, anti-trafficking, sex trafficking survivor and reproductive justice groups, with a handful of advocacy organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, serving as sponsors.
But those at the press conference Thursday argued that the implementation of the well-intended bill has caused vulnerable groups, specifically children, to fall through the cracks, as it has made it more difficult for law enforcement agencies to identify and address issues of human trafficking.
“(This is) a disaster in policy that has failed to protect the most vulnerable in our society,” civil rights activist Rev. Shane Harris said during the press conference. “Not only did it make it difficult for law enforcement to seek out and deal with human trafficking and prostitution rings, but it has made it difficult for children to be defended because it defended those who were perpetrating.”
Before SB 357, National City Chief of Police Jose Tellez explained that law enforcement was able to use the loitering measure as probable cause to approach individuals that officers suspect were engaging prostitution and detain them in order to engage in longer conversations as a means of identifying whether they were a victim of trafficking.
“It’s hard to do that in the street, because somebody is watching somewhere,” Tellez told FOX 5 after the conference. “Now, we don’t have that tool any longer, so now when an officer approaches somebody that is clearly working out there, they don’t have to stop and talk to us. There’s no manner to where we can detain, that’s a personal choice if they cooperate with the officers or not.”
He pointed to the recent human trafficking operation as an example of the work and resources that now need to go into efforts to address human trafficking, given that the loitering measure is not available.
But supporters of the bill, including the ACLU, contend that repealing the bill to restore the loitering measure still would not hold those who engage in trafficking accountable, rather harm those that might be victims with arrests.
“When we looked at who was being arrested (with the law), it was not people who are trafficking other people,” Minouche Kandel, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said to FOX5SanDiego.com.
City of San Diego arrest data obtained by the ACLU illustrated that the measure was scarcely used, Kandel said, with only eight arrests for the loitering with intent for prostitution law in 2021. She said all of the arrests were women and five identified as Black.
“If anything, it was being used to arrest survivors of trafficking and we should never be arresting someone as a way to provide them services,” Kandel said. “That is not trauma informed, that makes people less likely to come forward and report that they’re being harmed.”
Advocacy groups of human trafficking survivors, like the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST), echo that sentiment.
“One thing that CAST has heard from our clients on countless occasions is that being arrested was not only traumatizing and re-victimizing, but created insurmountable barriers to seeking employment, safe housing, and immigration relief,” Leigh LaChapelle, associate director of survivor advocacy at the CAST, said in an emailed statement to FOX5SanDiego.com.
“No one is positioning SB 357 as the total solution,” they continued. “But what we know is that we cannot cause harm to end harm. Jail is not outreach and it certainly is not services. And using arrest as a gateway to receiving services is harmful and creates distrust in our communities.”
According to data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline provided by SDPD earlier this week, more than 1,300 human trafficking cases were reported in California in 2021 — more than any other state in the nation.
“Unfortunately, if this pattern continues, more and more young people are going to be taken advantage of by pimps and those that pander prostitution,” Chief Tellez said during the conference. “As law enforcement, we only work within the parameters that we’re allowed to work in, but obviously the effort still continues as we partner with agencies to keep combating this issue.”