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Moving Past 'The Life': New Bill Would Allow Erasing Prostitution Convictions From Record

Flickr Photo/Brian (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Those caught up in it call it "the life." It usually involves a pimp, coercion and prostitution.

For young victims of sex trafficking, getting out of that life and building a new one can be a monumental task. Having a rap sheet for prostitution makes it  incredibly difficult to apply for jobs, or housing, or school — the things it takes to start over.

This session, Washington lawmakers hope to support victims by expanding a law to allow survivors of sex trafficking to clear their records of multiple prostitution convictions. A current law, passed two years ago, only allows for removing one conviction.

The new billcontinues the state's role as a leader in legislation to combat trafficking. So far, only about a dozen states have similar laws on the books. The latest legislative effort also continues a national trend toward taking a "victim-centered" approach to prostitution.

Nicole is one such young woman. When she was a teenager, she met a man who would later become her pimp. He lured her into a life of prostitution; that history dogs her now.

"When I go after jobs, I have a criminal history. I go for job interviews, I have to sit down with these employers and explain to them, look, I was a victim in a sex trafficking case," she said. "It’s really hard to get people to understand the meaning of this because they don’t think 'victims.' They think, 'Oh you just wanted to make a quick buck, take the lazy way out of life.'"

[asset-audio[{"description": "Reporter Sara Lerner speaks on KUOW's \"The Record\" about Nicole's story of sex trafficking.", "fid": "12531", "uri": "public://201402/0211Record-Prostitution2Way.mp3"}]]Nicole said people don't always understand how girls get trapped and how difficult it can be to get out. She's reminded of that every day when she looks in the mirror and sees the lasting damage of a beating from her pimp.

"I had reconstructive surgery on my face. I’ve got three plates around my left eye," she said. "My whole entire left eye socket broke. When I look in the mirror [to] do my hair and makeup like a normal person to go to work or something, I can see that my face doesn’t look the same as it used to."

She had eight concussions from this one incident. Her pimp is now in prison, but she’s still afraid of him and his friends. That’s why she’s not revealing her last name in this story.

The bill is intended to help people like Nicole start over.

"The reality is that individuals engaged in prostitution are often caught and arrested and prosecuted multiple times over their time in ‘the life,'" said King County's Senior Deputy Prosecutor Val Richey, who works exclusively on human trafficking cases. "Allowing them to remove those convictions because they were obtained as result of engaging in prostitution through force or coercion makes a lot of sense, whether it’s one conviction or two or three."

Richey said he hopes the bill expansion passes through the state Senate. An identical expansion to the bill passed the House last year but got stalled in the mostly Republican-controlled Senate. This year the bill's sponsor said it has a better chance because a compromise is being sorted out.

If it passes, getting the word out will be the next step. Richey does trainings on human trafficking for law enforcement and advocacy groups all over the state and said he consistently ends up telling people about the bill for the first time.

Nicole didn't know about the bill either. Currently, she is working three jobs and going to school full-time. But she said her history has already cost her some job opportunities that could have helped her launch a career.

She wants to be a victim’s advocate, someone who can help young women like herself. She said getting her record cleared "would just be the best thing in the world."