BOSTON (SHNS) – Survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and trafficking are often followed by criminal records that keep them from accessing stable housing and employment, even after they escape their traffickers and abusers, according to advocates hoping to change state law around sealing criminal records.
In a National Survivor Network survey, 63 percent of sex trafficking survivors reported being arrested or detained for crimes ranging from prostitution, substance use or trade, theft, or acts of self-defense. Of those who reported interactions with law enforcement, 81 percent said it happened while they were being trafficked and 90 percent said some or all of their record was directly related to their exploitation, according to the survey.
Survivors who escape the sex trade or an abuser often struggle to find stable housing and employment when they have a record of criminal history, said Rep. Tram Nguyen, one of the sponsors of a bill (H 1701/ S 1002) intended to expand current state law around record sealing and expungement for victims.
Nguyen cited the National Survivor Network survey in her speech at a legislative briefing Thursday at the State House, saying that of the 91 percent of the survivors with criminal convictions on their records, 72.7 percent face barriers to employment and 57.6 percent face barriers to housing.
Another speaker said at Thursday’s event, “I got free from my trafficker, the person I was having domestic violence issues with, but then I go to try to change my life because I got free, but then I’m not free because there are systems in my way.”
The speaker shared her story of being denied an apartment because of a “common streetwalking,” or prostitution, charge on her record.
“When I was trying to shift and do better with myself, when I was starting to heal and believe those around me that said I am worthy, and I can move forward, you’re not what’s happened to you in the past, it was like all these systems just said ‘no,'” she said.
As part of an omnibus criminal reform law passed in 2018, Massachusetts gave survivors the ability to vacate convictions.
But Ashleigh Pelto, human trafficking fellow at Greater Boston Legal Services’ CORI and Re-Entry Project, said the law gave only limited access to relief for survivors.
Pelto referenced a 2019 report by Polaris, a national nonprofit focused on combating sex trafficking. The report examined the states that have laws allowing survivors to vacate convictions. Massachusetts received a “D” on the nonprofit’s “report card” for its criminal record relief for victims.
“Our lowest ranked categories on the report are related to the limited number of offenses covered and the fact that the current statute only addresses convictions. It ignores all other elements of a record, such as arrest, juvenile adjudications, dismissals and non-prosecuted cases,” Pelto said. “Polaris’ report identifies that it is imperative that criminal record release statutes include all types and levels of offenses, because survivors are not all victimized or charged in the same way.”
Victims of sex trafficking are often forced to steal by their traffickers, and young victims can be used as bait for violent robberies against sex buyers, Pelto said, leaving them with a record.
“This bill addresses both of those categories where we are currently rated lowest in Polaris’ report and it addresses the main areas where Massachusetts is not meeting the needs of its survivors,” she said.
The legislation, sponsored by Nguyen, Rep. Christine Barber and Sens. Adam Gomez and Liz Miranda, would specifically name engagement in a criminal offense as a result of victimization as a ground for expungement. Expunged records are physically destroyed — a step more exhaustive than just sealing them from prospective landlords and employers.
It would also expand the types of engagement with law enforcement, other than just conviction, for which records could be sealed.
“There’s a big hole in the law from 2018,” said Pauline Quirion, director of Greater Boston Legal Services’ CORI Project. “The expungement statute was created to give people relief in those situations where it’s really unjust that you have a record to begin with. A situation where a person has been trafficked, obviously that’s a tremendous injustice. So the law just needs to expand to include those folks.”
The bill is currently in the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, and has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.