Senate committee considers vacating trafficking victims’ convictions

Victims of human trafficking in Indiana could soon have a new mechanism for relief from charges brought against them while they were under the control of a trafficker if a new bill designed to vacate those charges is passed.

Although members of the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee did not vote on Senate Bill 166 when its author, Sen. Jack Sandlin, R-Indianapolis, presented it on Tuesday, lawmakers indicated that they were supportive of the concept. If passed, SB 166 would allow individuals convicted of non-violent offenses, such as prostitution or adjudication as juvenile delinquents for prostitution, to petition the court to vacate their convictions if they can prove by a preponderance of evidence that their actions were the result of trafficking-related coercion.

Sandlin, who has a background in law enforcement, told committee members that he retrospectively realizes that many individuals who were prosecuted for prostitution charges during his career were actually trafficking victims.

“We didn’t have the full picture,” Sandlin said. “And there was no mechanism for them to have those records vacated even though they had been victimized.”

SB 166 would allow juvenile courts to reinstate jurisdiction if trafficking victims petition to have their non-violent convictions vacated as adults. Those convictions can be vacated based on the evidence, regardless of whether the trafficker or pimp was convicted of their actions, Sandlin said.

Several law enforcement and victim advocacy groups came forward in favor of SB 166, including Abby Kuzma, who led anti-human trafficking efforts under former Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller. Kuzma told the committee that 24 states currently have similar legislation in place, including Illinois and Ohio.  

There are three key reasons why SB 166 should be enacted in Indiana, Kuzma said. First, trafficking victims live under constant duress and with a looming threat of force against them. That reason then leads into the second, which is that victims often do not self-identify as victims because of that threat of force against them, she said.

Third, the bill would provide relief to victims beyond basic expungement, Kuzma said. While victims who have minor convictions on their records would have to wait eight years before petitioning for expungement — a wait that could affect their ability to find work and support themselves independent of their trafficker — a vacated conviction erases the offense entirely.

“This is different than expungement, because with expungement you have a second chance,” Kuzma told the committee. “But in this case, this was a victim who should not have been prosecuted were the full facts known.”

Committee chair Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, asked Kuzma why trafficking victims don’t identify as such and use their situations as a defense when they are prosecuted, thus avoiding their convictions altogether. But Kuzma repeated that most victims do not self-identify, and further added that victims often believe they are in love with their traffickers, so they do not want to bring harm to the people who are actually abusing them.

Young said he understood that issue, but also said in the future, the state should consider requiring those criminally charged to explain their situations at trial, rather than seeking a vacation after the fact.

“I don’t mind giving people a chance when we weren’t aware and didn’t understand trafficking, but at some point in the future we all know it, what’s going on, and I think it’s incumbent upon the attorney to raise those issues at the hearing and let it be decided at that point,” Young said.

Kuzma conceded that as law enforcement and others become more aware of the issues surrounding trafficking, defense attorneys will start asking enough questions to draw the truth out of victims. However, the state is not to that level yet, she said.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, noted that he has authored a bill that would allow juvenile courts to treat juvenile trafficking victims as children in need of services, rather than as delinquents.

Young opted to hold the bill on Tuesday, telling Sandlin that he supported the concept, but wanted to allow time for the committee to draft and consider amendments.  

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