East County News Service
PHOTO: Shane Harris, President of the People's Association of Justice Advocates, speaks out as National City Police Chief Jose Tellez, anti-human trafficking advocate Marisa Ugarte, Chula Vista Mayor John McCann, National City Mayor Ron Morrison and Abdur Rahim Hameed, President of the National Black Contractors Association, look on.
March 22, 2023 (San Diego) – Civic leaders are urging Governor Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature to repeal Senate Bill 357, a recent law which decriminalized loitering with the intent to sell sex. Elected officials, police chiefs and civil rights leaders say that far from protecting victims of sex trafficking, the law has created opportunities for perpetrators to exploit vulnerable minors.
At a press conference in late February in San Diego, officials including California Attorney General Bonta, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit, National City, CA Police Chief Jose Tellez and San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan discussed how this law has made it even more difficult to address human trafficking.
Chief Tellez said the bill has created “an open sex market on the streets of our community” and warned that the age of victims is becoming younger and younger.
The action follows a major human trafficking sting in San Diego that led to over 48 arrests and a finding that the human trafficking victims included eight children.
Shane Harris, the President and Founder of the People’s Association of Justice Advocates, has issued a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom, Senate President Pro-Tem Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon just two days after the major sting operation, “Operation Better Pathways,” urging the repeal of Senate Bill 357.
"The bill passed by the state legislature, brought forth by State Senator Scott Wiener and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom was well intentioned, but not well l implemented. The legislation now law in CA decriminalizes loitering with the intent to sell sex, said Harris at a Feb. 23 press conference. "California Senate Bill 357 is a civil rights assault on children across the state and must be repealed.”
Foster children make up nearly 60% of human trafficking victims, according to FBI statistics. Of all the children reported missing in 2021 after running away from child welfare, 19% were likely victims of child sex trafficking.
“SB 357 is a smokescreen, and it was the beginning of a test to legalize prostitution all over,” said Marisa Ugarte, an anti-human trafficking advocate.
During the recent human trafficking sting in San Diego, 39 suspects were arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor crimes, mostly prostitution-related offenses for people accused of buying sex. Another nine suspects were accused of more serious crimes, including human trafficking of a minor and assault with a deadly weapon.. Leaders argue more children may be at risk not just in San Diego but across California.
Recently, ECM interviewed Kathi Torres with Freedom from Exploitation, an organization that helps survivors of human trafficking. She is also a survivor of sex trafficking. She also calls for repeal of SB 357, which she says has cut off the main avenue for victims to get help.
“Because of this new law, police can’t stop, cite or arrest anyone for loitering to solicit prostitution,” she said, including victims being trafficked but also men driving around looking to pick up prostitutes. When police can’t detain trafficking victims, the victims don’t get referred to programs that can help them escape from being trafficked, Torres said.
If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, help is available by calling the National Human Trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888.