The third week of April 2021 is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. This is a week to honor and remember victims of crime, to acknowledge achievements in crime victim services, and to renew our commitment to serving victims. For survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, not only are they victims of crime, they also are often charged for crimes committed against them. This week and beyond, we should recognize these crimes, understand the importance of criminal relief for survivors, and acknowledge the amount of work still needed to be done.
In a study that interviewed 854 victims of prostitution from 9 different countries, 64% of respondents reported having been threatened with a weapon, 73% had been physically assaulted, and 57% had been raped. In another study, 92% of trafficked women reported being subjected to physical violence, such as being shot, strangled, burned, beaten, stabbed, or punched. Respondents reported an average of 6.25 of the 12 forms of violence in the study. Victims of commercial sexual exploitation are also victims of countless crimes and forms of violence and abuse along with their exploitation.
While they should be receiving justice and protection from these crimes, they are consistently seen as perpetrators of them. 214 children under 18 were charged with prostitution and criminal vice in 2019, according to the FBI, despite federal law stating that any minor under the age of 18 who is induced to perform commercial sex acts is a victim of human trafficking, regardless of whether he or she is forced or coerced. In a 2016 survey by the National Survivor Network, 91% of 130 trafficking survivor respondents reported having been arrested. These are just a few of their stories: Hope Zeferjohn was 17 years old when she was charged in Kansas with 10 felonies, including aggravated human trafficking. She is now serving a 6 year sentence and will spend a lifetime on the sex offenders registry after being forced into a sex trafficking operation by her sister’s ex boyfriend. Hope reported that her trafficker would beat her, and threatened to hurt her son and other loved ones if she disobeyed him and did not assist in recruiting other girls for his exploitation.
In 1995, when Sara Kruzan was 17, she was sentenced to life in prison without parole in California for killing a man who sex trafficked her starting at age 11, and abused her. She spent 20 years of her life behind bars. She was never seen as a victim, but instead, a killer. Keiana Aldrich was also 17 when she was charged in California as an adult with kidnapping and robbery after living on the streets for 3 years, being commercially sexually exploited, and pulled into a robbery by her trafficker. The men who were kidnapped and robbed were not charged with soliciting sex from a minor, while Keiana was sentenced to 10 years. Keiana had testified at age 16 against her trafficker in hopes of receiving housing and care, but was turned back out onto the streets. After being arrested, she reported having been sexually exploited by correctional officers in the prison.
Cyntoia Brown was 16 in 2006 when she was convicted of aggravated robbery and first degree murder for killing a man who bought her for sex. She was sentenced to life in prison with the chance of parole only after serving 51 years. Brown reported killing this man in self-defense, and took money to bring back to her trafficker to protect herself. At the time, she was being sex trafficked, abused, and threatened. She served 15 years behind bars. Zephaniah Trevino was 16 when she was involved in a robbery with 2 men in which two other men were shot, and one was killed. The adult men shot were there to purchase sex from Zephaniah. She is now being tried as an adult and facing capital muder charges, despite not pulling the trigger, which would sentence her to life in prison without chance of parole for 50 years. Stories like these are all too common.
Survivors of commercial sexual exploitation often face hardships trying to find housing and employment after escaping exploitation and often homelessness and addiction. Adding a criminal record to the mix contributes to keeping survivors stuck in cycles of incarceration and exploitation by preventing their recovery and growth. Criminal records impact the ability to gain employment, find affordable and safe housing, further one’s education, and more. Survivors need the support of the justice system to acknowledge their victimhood and the complexities of commercial sexual exploitation so that their focus can be on healing.
Kansas currently has an F on the state report cards created by the Polaris Project that analyze access to criminal record relief for victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Missouri has a score of 0, since the state’s criminal record relief laws only apply to minors. In Kansas, the connection to trafficking the survivor must prove is less restrictive than other states, which allows more relief, but in-person hearings are always required in Kansas, which can be difficult for survivors. Kansas also assesses the behavior of the survivor after their conviction related to their own exploitation to determine if they deserve criminal relief. The score in Kansas totals to 34, but this score could drastically improve with the implementation of policy that would expand the evidence that can be used to prove trafficking victimization statues, allow for alternative hearing methods, confidentiality, and the refund of fees and surcharges for vacated convictions.
There have been isolated efforts in Kansas to create legislation that provides criminal relief for survivors, such as through Senate Bills 154 and 227, but these bills have not had the broad support needed to pass and implement them. These bills, along with Senate Bill 59 that alters the language regarding sex crimes in Kansas from “sexual relations” to “a sex act”, are no longer moving forward. If you are able to, we encourage you to contact your Kansas Senators and ask that these issues be brought back to attention. Without policy change and the dedication of those with influence, we will continue to hear stories just like Hope’s, Sara’s, Keiana’s, Cyntoia’s, Zephaniah’s, and many, many others.
Veronica’s Voice also remains committed to implementing the Equality Model in Kansas and Missouri to decriminalize those experiencing CSE, while holding buyers and traffickers accountable, and supporting services for survivors. To sign the petition, visit veronicasvoice.org/kc-case.