Addressing concerns that prostitutes may be particularly vulnerable to violent crimes, especially sexual assault and rape, a California board in charge of a victim-compensation fund has determined that these sex workers should be eligible for state assistance. The board announced last month that it has asked for a change in regulations that prohibit individuals involved in prostitution from receiving state assistance even if they are victims of a violent crime.
It will take a few months to change the rules governing compensation for victims of a violent crime. Jon Myers, a spokesperson for the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, said in an interview Tuesday that the board unanimously approved the initial request to make the necessary modifications, and now the staff will return with their recommendations for the regulation change. The public will have a chance to comment on the recommendations before the board approves the rule modifications. Thereafter, the board’s recommendations will be forwarded to the Office of Administrative Law.
According to a press release from the board, eligibility requirements currently prohibit an applicant’s “involvement in the events leading up to the qualifying crime.”
In a scenario in which a prostitute is raped by a john, he or she can’t likely receive help from the fund set aside for victims until the rules are changed. This fund can cover a variety of expenses including medical and dental bills, mental-health services and relocation expenses.
Myers said that an applicant can claim up to $63,000 from the state, and the average claim is under $2,000.
Advocates in the sex trade celebrated the board’s decision, but other groups like CAST-LA (also known as the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking– Los Angeles) also agreed with the board. CAST-LA is an advocacy and resource organization dedicated to helping survivors of labor and sex trafficking. The Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) has partnered with CAST-LA when the department has needed assistance in rescuing victims from prostitution.
CAST-LA has a hotline for individuals needing help and provides access to shelter, clothing and mental-health services. The organization also helps to explain the law to those individuals who may be intimidated by the legal process, said Stephanie Richard, who is the policy and legal services director for CAST-LA.
Richard said that under the federal and state definitions, minors under the age of 18 who have been “induced” into commercial sex are victims of sex trafficking. She added that anyone who has been engaging in prostitution as a minor would be eligible for their services, even if they’re an adult now and have continued to work in prostitution. Those adults who are brought into prostitution through force, fraud or coercion are also eligible for their services, Richard said.
The LBPD reported that as of the morning of Dec. 31, between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2013, the department has rescued 24 individuals from prostitution, including 19 juveniles, according to Nancy Pratt, a police spokesperson. During this time frame, the department has handled 12 cases of human trafficking. All of them are related to prostitution. Pratt said that none of these human-trafficking cases involved forcible rape.
As the Signal Tribune reported earlier this year, new laws now offer the chance for police departments to see some of their prostitution cases in a new light– as possible human-trafficking violations which carry stiffer penalties especially for the pimps responsible for forcing victims into the sex trade.
Not every case involving prostitution is labeled a sex-trafficking case, and the counts dealing with the number of arrests for prostitution in the last year will be very different than the tally offered for the number of human-trafficking cases which have been handled by the department.
Long Beach tallies for the number of general prostitution arrests (those not considered human-trafficking cases) were not available by press time. The Signal Hill Police Department (SHPD) reported only one citation to an adult for “loitering for solicitation of prostitution.” Chief Michael Langston said that the SHPD participated in joint-enforcement activities with the LBPD in 2013. He said that there were about 10 prostitution-related charges during those operations that were handled by LBPD. These cases would be included in Long Beach’s 2013 statistics when they become available.
Richard explained that even before this new provision passed, CAST-LA’s clients have been able to receive victim compensation, even if they were involved in sex trafficking. She pointed to a key reason for their eligibility for the state aid– clients of CAST-LA who were survivors of sex trafficking weren’t willing participants in prostitution.
There may be other details that still need to be pondered before the board fully approves the change in eligibility requirements for the victim-compensation fund. The fund can often reimburse for back wages, but Richard says that trafficking victims aren’t able to apply for those wages because they don’t have the documentation that’s required for employment. She argued that trafficking victims, whether or not it’s in the sex- or labor-trafficking context, should be entitled to back wages since they were in a forced-job relationship.
She recognizes that this request may prove controversial.
“It does seem like there needs to be changes made so that trafficking victims can recover back wages in the way that other crime victims can today,” Richard said.