RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — An expungement bill for survivors of human trafficking now is unlikely to be voted on until next year’s General Assembly.
The bill introduced this January would allow confirmed victims of human trafficking to have charges they incurred as a result of their trafficking situation — like prostitution — wiped away from their criminal record.
Recent developments show getting the bill passed will take longer than supporters hoped for. State lawmakers decided to send the human trafficking bill, along with a group of other expungement bills, to a year-long study by the Virginia State Crime Commission.
The bill is expected to go for a vote in the 2021 session.
Virginia is one of only six states in the country with no expungement relief for human trafficking victims, making it difficult for survivors to rebuild their lives.
The lack of expungement laws isn’t because the problem skipped the commonwealth.
Virginia is ranked 15th in the nation for reported cases of human trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. In Hampton Roads alone, 100 new victims were identified last year.
Tiffany McGee has dedicated the last 15 years of her life to helping victims, serving on anti-trafficking task forces in Africa and Europe as part of the Department of Defense.
Last year, she founded the Norfolk based nonprofit Survivor Ventures. The program helps survivors get back on their feet through housing and employment assistance.
One of the biggest barriers McGee sees victim face is their criminal record. It keeps victims from getting good paying jobs and from securing safe housing.
“A lot of people just don’t understand that survivors have criminal records. They don’t realize that survivors are arrested for their role as a victim,” McGee said. “It comes as a surprise often because it seems like something that’s so wrong.”
“A bill like the one we’re trying to get passed for expungement for survivors of human trafficking, would really have an enormous effect. It decreases barriers to affordable and safe housing, as well as minimum wage employment.”
Last fall, McGee reached out to attorney Wade Skalsky, an expungement expert who recently relocated to Virginia from California.
“I was surprised Virginia didn’t have any kind of relief for using expungements that really surprised me,” said Skalsky. “California has had expungement relief in general since the 60s.”
McGee and Skalsky decided it was time for Virginia’s laws to change. They got to work reaching out to state lawmakers.
Del. Steve Heretick, (D-Portsmouth), said if Skalsky wrote a bill, he would patron it.
“To me, it’s a matter of simple fairness. It’s a matter of helping to give people, give victims their lives back,” said Heretick.
Sen. Mamie Locke, (D-District 2), took the patronage for the bill in the Senate.
“I said ‘Yes I’ll do that.’ Because I’m very interested in working with individuals who have pretty much gotten a rotten deal,” said Locke. “This is not a life that someone chose. They were victimized.”
Similar bills have gone before the General Assembly before. Each one failed for various reasons. But this one, House Bill 268, appears to have a fighting chance, some say.
“It’s an issue who’s time really has come and frankly I would suggest with some apology that it’s taken entirely too long for us to get to this in Virginia,” said Heretick.
“I’m not surprised at all, the crime commission is where we typically send more complicated criminal bills for evaluation,” Heretick said. “Frankly, I’m encouraged by the effort. This is the first year that we’ve gotten expungement bills not only down the road, but headed toward passage in the near future.”
Changing laws takes time, but time is what some victims don’t have.
“I’m very frustrated by it because these people, these women need help today. We don’t need help a year from now,” said Skalsky.
“Life expectancy for a survivor of human trafficking, according to the FBI and many nonprofits, is seven years from the first trafficking incidents,” said McGee. She pointed out many of the survivors she works with are close to that seven year mark.
There’s a chance, without change, some might not make it to see the bill passed a year from now.
All hope is not lost for the bill to pass this session. If enough people who support the bill call their state delegate and ask for it, the bill could get brought back into committee.