For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong. – H.L. Mencken
American politicians just love “feel good” laws, legislation grounded entirely in emotion and usually labeled with some vague designation including words like “safe”, “protect”, “victim”, “child” or the name of a dead little girl. Such laws usually result from moral panics or lurid news stories, accomplish little to nothing for actual victims of actual crimes, trample on civil rights and are impossible for legislators to oppose for fear of being labeled “soft on crime” or some equally meaningless adjectival phrase. And why do politicians love them? Because they require no research, debate, thinking or other actual work and allow those who support them to blend into the herd, mooing loudly while standing beneath the flag (cue patriotic music). If a news story reports that a law is passed unanimously or near-unanimously, if the chief executive signs it quickly and with great fanfare, if it’s promoted by a variety of special interest groups (especially “anti-crime” groups), and most notably if it was sponsored by one member of each half of the Big Government Party, you can bet the farm you’re looking at a feel-good law whose chief function is to misdirect public attention from whatever shenanigans the politicians are up to at the moment. Here’s a recent example from Illinois, reported on August 6th in the Chicago Sun-Times:
Gov. Pat Quinn on Saturday announced a new law that will give victims of sex trafficking who have been charged with prostitution an opportunity to clear their names through court. “Sex trafficking is a truly reprehensible crime that preys on the most vulnerable. Victims deserve a chance to clear their records and rebuild their lives,” Quinn said. Illinois previously passed the 2006 anti-trafficking law and 2010 Safe Children Act, which helps support victims who were forced into the sex trade and have criminal records as a direct result of being trafficked…Senate Bill 1037 allows defendants who are victims of human trafficking at the time of their prostitution convictions to file a motion to vacate the conviction if the defendant’s participation in the offense was the result of being a victim…Prostitution convictions limit victims’ abilities to access housing, employment education, immigration status and parental rights, according to the governor’s office. The bill also creates a new filing timeline for victims of sex trafficking because they often endure years of abuse at the hands of traffickers and customers before they are able to seek help.
“The most important thing about Senate Bill 1037 is that it makes sure that the judicial system has a mechanism to ensure that a person who has been the victim of a crime is not automatically considered a criminal,” [bill sponsor Toi] Hutchinson said. “It is good public policy to protect women and children who have been taken advantage of in this most heinous way. They can take the necessary steps to rebuild their lives and become functional members of society after suffering trauma of that magnitude.”
“Victims of human trafficking are often forced into prostitution and other crimes against their own will, and too many of them are being prosecuted as criminals,” [bill sponsor Karen] Yarbrough said. “When we have evidence that involuntary human trafficking was the cause of the crime, even though the victim may not have had the ability or representation to prove it during trial, we must do the right thing and reverse their conviction so they can move on with repairing their lives.” The bill takes effect Jan. 1 and was supported by a variety of institutions, leaders and anti-crime organizations…
There’s nothing wrong with the core concept in principle; obviously somebody forced to commit a crime should not have to suffer penalties for that crime. But as we have seen, coerced prostitution is extremely rare (roughly 1.5% of adult prostitutes and less than 16% of underage ones), and the majority of those are involved in coercive relationships rather than the true “sex slavery” the media, trafficking fetishists and politicians are so aroused by; I’d be very surprised if more than a hundred women in the entire state of Illinois (roughly one-tenth of the state’s statistical share of coerced prostitutes) could truly qualify as “trafficked” in any meaningful way. Even then, the victim would have to be first arrested and convicted of prostitution before being able to take advantage of this law, and that would require her being able to “prove” that she was “trafficked” by whatever criteria the law establishes (one of which is certainly fingering one or more men to take her place in jail). Furthermore, if the Illinois law is anything like New York’s “Safe Harbor Law”, it’s virtually impossible for the majority of prostitutes to take advantage of it:
The Safe Harbor Act, along with initiatives like it that [Rachel] Lloyd and others are promoting across the country, are NOT simple or solutions for most of us. First, they don’t stop arrests of young people for prostitution-related offenses, or the police abuses of young people in the sex trades, including police trading sex in exchange for promises of dropping charges. They also don’t stop arrests of young people in the sex trades that involve “charging up,” i.e. charging young people with weapons or drug-related offenses which may be easier to prove. Second, while they may stop criminal prosecutions of young people for prostitution-related offenses, these laws do not eliminate detention and punishment of young people involved in the sex trades, they just shift young people from the jurisdiction of the criminal courts to family court systems, where they can remain entangled until the age of 21. And, in the end, only a very narrow group of people can benefit from these laws.
For example, in order for the Safe Harbor Act to benefit a young person, they must be under 16 and arrested for the first time and must never have been in family court before. Young people between the ages of 16-18 continue to be charged in adult court. Even those under 16 who can meet the Act’s criteria must still convince a judge that they are a “victim” of a “severe form of trafficking” – a hurdle that…is almost impossible for young girls of color…When young people can’t respond to police and prosecutors’ pressure to give up a “pimp” they never had they get punished by law enforcement and service providers alike, and find themselves back on the delinquency and detention track. Even when…[the law] is found to apply to a young person, they must still follow the rules a family court judge sees fit, which can involve attending a court-mandated program…many of which enforce Christianity on participants…
And even if Illinois’ version of the law corrects the problems (which is highly unlikely considering that Lutheran Social Services of Illinois and the Sheriff of Cook County, Tom Dart, are among its supporters), it still leaves unquestioned the idea that the state has the power to regulate women’s sexuality and to punish women for the “crime” of having sex on their own terms, and that the only way for a woman to avoid state-sanctioned persecution is for her to “prove” to busybodies that she was the “victim” of a man or men, thus surrendering her adult agency to the court by admitting to an inability to manage her own sexual affairs.
One Year Ago Today
The conclusion of “Regulars”, in which I discuss those repeat clients who were, for one reason or another, more difficult to deal with.