TRENTON: It is a particularly poignant time of year for the NJ Senate to vote to pass a vital bill that survivors of human trafficking have been waiting for – the eve of Human Trafficking Awareness Day. The bill A5322 which just passed unanimously will allow survivors to vacate criminal convictions that resulted from the abuse and exploitation of their traffickers. Awareness Day is a highlight of January’s Human Trafficking Prevention Month and will now also mark the efforts of legislators, survivors, and advocates to pass legislation to make it possible for survivors to build lives after their ordeal of trafficking.
Assemblywoman Gabriela M. Mosquera (D-Camden/Gloucester), who first introduced the legislation, was delighted with the vote: “After years of hard work, I am happy that we have been able to get this bill through the full legislature. Creating a law that gives survivors of trafficking a fresh start after they are free is so important and will make a real impact in helping survivors get back on their feet. As the bill gets to the Governor today, I remain confident that the bill will get signed.” Said the Assemblywoman.
She had championed the legislation after hearing from the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking (NJCAHT) of the importance of recognizing that traffickers force their victims to commit crimes other than prostitution, which up to now had been the only crime open to vacatur and expungement when it’s shown that human trafficking is involved.
Jessica Kitson, Director of Legal Advocacy at Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, and member of the NJCAHT developed the bill language and said: “This bill is a tremendous victory for survivors of human trafficking. I am deeply grateful to all of the legislators who helped ensure that New Jersey remains at the forefront of anti-human trafficking legislation, and for continuing to provide this much-needed relief for survivors seeking to reclaim and rebuild their lives.”
Gina Cavallo, who consults with the NJCAHT said: “As a survivor of human trafficking speaking from my lived experience and on behalf of countless survivors still without a voice, I am so grateful to the legislature for passing this important bill to help survivors rebuild their lives post-trafficking. It will now make it easier for survivors to access employment, education, housing, and other crucial benefits. Before this, many were left vulnerable to re-trafficking and other victimizations.”
Angelo J. Onofri, Mercer County Prosecutor and Commissioner with the NJ Commission on Human Trafficking also welcomed the news: “The passage of this legislation is a giant step toward helping the victims of human trafficking rebuild their lives. I applaud the legislature for recognizing the gap in the law and acting to make the victims whole.”
Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips (R- Bergen/Essex/Morris/Passaic) was another primary sponsor along with Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen).
“Human trafficking is a major problem in New Jersey given our location, proximity to major cities and robust transportation network. We can’t turn a blind eye to the victims of human trafficking in this state. They deserve to move on with life and not be haunted by their past. This bill will allow them to do just that,” said Assemblyman DePhillips.
Assemblywoman Vainieri Huttle added: “Many of the crimes that victims of human trafficking commit are a result of coercion and psychological trauma and should not be continued to be held against them. Providing an expungement pathway will allow these individuals to begin the process of building a new life for themselves.”
The Primary Sponsors of the bill on the Senate side were Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden) and Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Morris/Somerset/Union).
“Victims of human trafficking are oftentimes forced to endure unspeakable trauma and break the law against their will. This bill would expand the expungement convictions for individuals that are victims of human trafficking, not just for prostitution,” said Senator Cruz-Perez. “This expansion of expungement convictions will better protect human trafficking victims.”
“I am incredibly proud that this legislation was passed today, especially during National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. This bill will provide much needed support to the victims of trafficking and help strengthen the fight for justice,” said Senator Kean. “Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, and sadly, still occurs across New Jersey in places where many of us would never suspect it, including our own communities. The more we raise awareness of it, including what it looks like and where it happens, the harder it will be for traffickers to get away with such despicable crimes.”
Senate Co-Sponsors of the bill were Senators Troy Singleton, Nellie Pou and Vin Gopal.
“It is indisputable that human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, and it is outrageous that in 2022 this is still a problem in our society,” said Senator Troy Singleton. “As a legislative body, we have worked to implement laws that support survivors, and raise awareness for human trafficking, but there is more we can do. Currently, survivors of human trafficking can apply to expunge convictions for prostitution and related charges, since they were forced against their will to break these laws. However, through this legislation, we seek to expand expungement protections to all convictions that were committed under victimized circumstances. The survivors of human trafficking need to know that there are policies and laws in place that will support them and help them move their lives forward.”
“Human trafficking is a modern-day menace that seeks to exploit our most vulnerable residents – including women and children — by preying upon them physically, psychologically and emotionally,” said Senator Nellie Pou, D-Bergen/Passaic, a prime sponsor of many pieces of legislation meant to help combat this scourge. “Against their own wills, these individuals are often forced into work in the sex industry, or into what amounts to modern slave labor as a domestic servant or farmhand.
“Victims of trafficking are deserving of the same basic human rights the rest of us enjoy. By raising awareness, and also training law enforcement and informing our court systems about how to recognize the signs of human trafficking, we can better track these illegal networks and begin to offer protections for people who have had the misfortune of getting caught in their web.”
State Senator Vin Gopal praised the passage of anti-human trafficking legislation he cosponsored to hold victims of human trafficking harmless when they are forced to commit crimes. Gopal, D-Monmouth, cosponsored S3433, which the full senate passed today, providing a process for people to have their sentences vacated and their records expunged for violations of law committed because of their status as victims of human trafficking. The process would not be available to those convicted of murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, luring or enticing a child, or sexual assault pursuant.
“Human trafficking is a human tragedy that should not be compounded by criminal changes when a person is forced into prostitution, drug trafficking or to commit other crimes,” Gopal said. “Human trafficking victims often find themselves enslaved under other pretenses and are forced to commit crimes to pay their handlers huge sums of money. To charge a person who has been forced to commit an action against their will or under an illegal agreement that indentures them is victimizing them twice.”
About the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking
The New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking (NJCAHT) is a fully volunteer-run 501c3 nonprofit founded in 2011 that coordinates statewide community efforts to end sex and labor trafficking in New Jersey. Comprising over 150 volunteers and more than 200 affiliates including nonprofits, faith-based organizations, academics, law enforcement, and direct service providers it works to empower communities with the knowledge of what human trafficking is, how to prevent it, and how to support those affected by it. During January’s Human Trafficking Prevention Month and throughout the year the NJCAHT makes free awareness education available via online events and by offering trainings to schools, local groups, healthcare teams and faith-based communities via its Speakers Bureau. Their events in January include a student created event for January 11 – Human Trafficking Awareness Day – a presentation by Homeland Security on January 18 and an online seminar about the intersection of Child Abuse and Human Trafficking on January 25. For more information go to www.safernj.org.