RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — With the 2022 Virginia General Assembly session underway, advocates against human trafficking are vying for lawmakers’ attention to expand the rights of trafficking victims in the commonwealth.
Officials with the Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking say they have two main goals this session. First, they’re pushing for the non-criminalization of juveniles through HB 413 with patron Del. Karrie Delaney. Second, they want to expand upon last year’s successful expungement and vacatur laws with HB 578 with patron Del. Kelly Convis-Fowler.
During the 2021 session, lawmakers passed legislation that allows expungement for prostitution charges for confirmed victims of trafficking. The 2021 bill also included vacatur laws for the charges. Vacatur laws essentially mean the court acknowledges a victim should never have been charged or prosecuted in the first place for the offense.
“Both of those are important to survivors,” explained Patrick McKenna, with the Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking. “One vindicates the victim because they shouldn’t have been found guilty or prosecuted in the first place. And the second removes the matter from their record.”
VCAHT has teamed up with other groups, like local nonprofit Survivor Ventures, to fight for expanding on this legislation to include expungement and Vacatur for all trafficking-related charges on a victim’s record. This would include an array of charges like grand larceny, drug charges, false ID charges and even credit card fraud.
“It’s awareness of what human trafficking is,” explained Tiffany McGee with Survivor Ventures. “I get it all the time; people are shocked that victims of human trafficking have criminal records. It doesn’t compute for a lot of people and it’s because they’re not realizing the things traffickers are making their victims do, it’s not just prostitution and selling sex. There’s any number of crimes that they can force their victims to commit, and they do that.”
“I think it’s really critical that people understand the need for this legislation,” added McKenna. “Because criminal records are what keep human trafficking victims stuck in a place where they are then able to be continually exploited. Those criminal records, as one human trafficking victim said, it’s not a record of my criminal behavior, it’s a record of my abuse.”
McKenna and McGee point out criminal records from trafficking keep victims from rebuilding their lives by making access to employment and affordable housing extremely difficult.
“If you’re not able to get employment or affordable housing, it makes you even more vulnerable to being re-trafficked,” said McGee. “So, there’s really nothing more important than expanding the criminal relief legislation to survivors of human trafficking.”
Experts say the amount of people these laws will help is hard to qualify because of the nature of human trafficking. According to National Human Trafficking Hotline, Virginia ranks 15th in the nation for the number of victims.
Fighting human trafficking in the commonwealth was a campaign promise from Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
On his first day in office Saturday, the governor signed an executive order creating a commission on human trafficking prevention and survivor support. Youngkin ordered the commission to release an interim report on its findings and recommendations no later than Sept. 1, 2022.
While the executive order didn’t mention expungement, it did draw attention to the issue of human trafficking.
Advocates say they remain optimistic about what will be accomplished for victims during this General Assembly session.