Ill-informed legislation under consideration in Maryland

BREAKING 11:45am, March 25, 2015: We just learned that the Senate Bill has been withdrawn and the hearing cancelled. This is a great victory for human rights!

While lawmakers at the federal level are battling over a largely bad piece of legislation allegedly meant to address human trafficking, a proposal in Maryland to increase criminal penalties related to trafficking and prostitution will have a hearing on March 25. In the name of making human trafficking-related crimes felonies rather than misdemeanors, the Maryland Senate will hear testimony on Senate Bill 904. This is the counterpart to House Bill 241, which had a hearing last month. Aside from the fact that a criminalization approach is not effective in addressing coercion or exploitation, Maryland’s human trafficking law is even more problematic than many others. In 2007 lawmakers essentially amended the state’s pandering laws and renamed them “human trafficking” laws–meaning that human trafficking in Maryland only covers force, fraud and coercion in the sex sector, and trafficking in any other sector is not covered.

The proposed law would make the following, among others, into felony crimes:

  • take or cause another to be taken to any place for prostitution
  • place, cause to be placed, or harbor another in any place for prostitution
  • persuade, induce, entice, or encourage another to be taken to or placed in any place for prostitution

As noted by advocates like Power Inside who are speaking out against these bills (as well as those who have spoken out against similar legislation in other parts of the country) such a law would increase dramatically the criminal penalties associated with important harm reduction practices such as sex workers working together. A friend giving a ride to a sex worker, a boyfriend or a girlfriend acting as a lookout when a sex worker takes a date, or an older sex worker giving advice to a younger sex worker could all be liable for felony crimes under such a law, which would include up to 25 years in jail, a $15,000 fine, and no possibility to expunge the conviction.

If Maryland lawmakers are truly interested in helping people who experience force, fraud or coercion in the course of their work, whether in the sex sector, domestic labor, agricultural sector, or elsewhere, they should revise the law to properly define human trafficking. Even more importantly, they should focus on structural reforms that would make people less vulnerable to exploitation, such as increasing labor protections, raising the minimum wage, ensuring a strong social safety newt, promoting worker organizing among migrants and other vulnerable groups, and removing criminal laws associated with sex work.

Power Inside, Best Practices Policy Project, Sex Worker Project, and other groups are sending the letter below to the Maryland Senate and General Assembly encouraging them to table this bill and reconsider their approach.

TO: The Hon. Bobby Zirkin, Chair, and members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee; Hon. Joseph Vallario, Jr., Chair, and members of the House Judiciary Committee

FROM: The Undersigned Organizations

DATE: March 25, 2015

RE: Opposition to Senate Bill 904 and House Bill 241

As service providers, human rights advocates, and experts working on behalf of victims of human trafficking across the country, we appreciate the zeal with which the Maryland legislature has taken on the fight to end human trafficking. However, we believe strongly that SB 904 and HB241 are misguided and we oppose increasing penalties under subsection (a) of Maryland Criminal Code § 11-303 and urge the committees to release an unfavorable report on each of the respective bills.

Firstly, it is important to recognize that trafficking adults with the use of force, fraud, or coercion is already correctly a felony under MCC § 11-303(b)(2). This is in line with the definition of trafficking used by the federal government, and accepted as a model law by the American Bar Association, the Uniform Laws Commission, the United Nations, and experts in human trafficking. SB 904 and HB 241 are unnecessary to protect adult victims of human trafficking.

As it stands, MCC § 11-303(a) criminalizes activities that fall far beyond the widely accepted definition of human trafficking. If the amendments pass, basic safety techniques that those in the sex trade, including victims of human trafficking, engage in as a means of harm reduction would be considered felony human trafficking. For instance, two trafficking victims driving to and from jobs together would be considered felony human trafficking. This increased criminalization of an overbroad definition of trafficking will inadvertently escalate harm to adult victims of trafficking, as well as homeless and otherwise vulnerable adults involved in prostitution who rely on their peers for basic survival.

The increased penalties of these common harm-reduction activities have far-reaching consequences beyond longer and more costly sentences. Many Maryland residents who enter into prostitution have been disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of homelessness, health conditions, and survival related behaviors such as trading sex for shelter. As such, they may have lengthy criminal records for crimes that may eventually be expunged or sealed.  Human trafficking is not eligible for sealing or expungement. As such, anyone arrested and convicted under MCC § 11-303 for prostitution-related activities that fall short of the commonly understood definition of human trafficking will face life-long stigma and discrimination when seeking employment, housing, and education. This is especially true when considering that most employers, landlords, and other gate-keepers will not understand the broad range of survival activities that are considered “human trafficking” under Maryland state law. This unfortunate consequence of criminalization forces people to rely on the sex industry, even when seeking to escape it. This problem is only compounded if non-violent trafficking charges are increased to felonies.  Passing this law could wreak havoc on the lives of the most vulnerable, and we are deeply concerned about the implications.

We, the undersigned, oppose SB 904 and HB 241.

Monica Jones speaks at the United Nations: Protect sex workers’ rights, end racist & transphobic policing

Human rights defender Monica Jones, along with other human rights activists, were in Geneva at the United Nations this past week to educate officials about rights violations happening in the United States. The U.S. is up for review of its human rights record in May as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Ms. Jones’ fight for justice was highlighted at the U.N. previously in 2014 during a review of U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This video captures Monica Jones presenting to officials about the need for strengthened protections for the human rights of sex workers, and the need to end racist and transphobic policing. Read an in-depth piece on what Ms. Jones is doing in Geneva on Truthout.org.

U.S. Advocates Meet with UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders

Call for Support for Rasmea Odeh, Monica Jones & Anti-Police Violence Activists

For Immediate Release–March 23, 2015

Contacts: Rasmea Defense Committee, #Justice4Rasmea: Hatem Abudayyeh, hatem85@yahoo.com, 773.301.4108

Best Practices Policy Project, #StandWithMonica: Darby Hickey, 202.250.4869

Community Justice Project: Meena Jagannath, meena@floridalegal.org

Geneva–Human rights advocates from the U.S. met Friday in Geneva with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, to call for support for human rights advocates in the U.S. who face police harassment, arrest and other state violence for their efforts to stand up for their rights and the rights of others. The advocates were part of a U.S. Human Rights Network delegation in Geneva that is educating the UN Human Rights Council about rights violations in the U.S. in advance of its review of the U.S.’ human rights record in May. They asked the Rapporteur to monitor the cases of Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh, of transgender and sex worker rights activist Monica Jones, as well as the ongoing harassment of activists at the forefront of nationwide protests against racist policing and police brutality.

Rasmea Odeh, 67 years old, is deputy director of the Chicago-based Arab-American Action Network, and has lived in the U.S. for 20 years. Advocates informed the Rapporteur that she faces imprisonment and deportation because of her work on behalf of the Arab immigrant community and for Palestinian human rights. Federal authorities alleged that Odeh did not disclose her conviction in Palestine 45 years ago by an Israeli military court, an institution with a long record of human rights violations. At the time of her arrest in Palestine, Odeh, then a 22 year-old student, was forced into a confession while being subjected to 25 days of physical and sexual torture. Odeh never committed a crime, and her arrest and conviction by an Israeli military court were unlawful. During her recent sentencing hearing, federal authorities branded this community advocate and torture survivor a “terrorist.” Odeh was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment, followed by deportation, but her sentence has been stayed pending appeal.

Monica Jones updated the Rapporteur about the danger she faces as an activist for transgender and sex worker human rights. The target of discriminatory police profiling, she was wrongfully arrested under an anti-prostitution police sweep program in Phoenix, called Project ROSE, a day after speaking out publicly against the program. After a long fight and an appeal, a judge dismissed Monica Jones’ charges earlier this year. However, the unjust laws she was arrested under remain in place, and like many transgender and gender non-conforming people of color, she is threatened by regular harassment by police, who use these laws to intimidate and harm members of communities already enduring rampant discrimination.

Advocates also informed the Rapporteur about the persistent threats and violence that those organizing throughout the U.S. for justice in the wake of the police killing of Mike Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, and countless other unarmed people of color. Examples include the arbitrary arrests and continued police surveillance and harassment of activists in Ferguson and St. Louis, MO. Numerous other activists have complained of such harassment across the country, demonstrating a concerning trend towards targeting of those who have been visibly organizing against police brutality and racism in the past several months.

“We are pleased that the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders is taking note of the harassment that people in the U.S. face, simply for standing up for human rights,” said Meena Jagannath, attorney with the Community Justice Project based in Miami, which works with the Dream Defenders and helped submit a report to the UN Committee Against Torture on behalf of the parents of Mike Brown and Ferguson-St. Louis groups last November. “We hope the global community can impress upon the U.S. government the importance of respecting the right to dissent.”

****PHOTOS AVAILABLE****

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Press Release: U.S. Sex Worker Rights Activists to Advocate Before UN Human Rights Council

March 12, 2015

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACTS: Geneva team- Monica Jones 602-575-9332, J.M. Kirby: jm.kirby@law.cuny.edu;

United States- Janet Duran- 973-900-4887, Penelope Saunders- 917-817-0324, penelope.saunders@gmail.com

 

U.S. Sex Worker Rights Activists to Advocate Before UN Human Rights Council

Advocates Call for Justice as the UN Reviews the U.S. Human Rights Record

Geneva- Representatives of U.S.-based sex worker rights organizations will travel to Geneva, Switzerland next week, March 15-21st, to meet with members of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), and to call for greater human rights protections. As the HRC prepares for a review of the U.S.’ human rights record later this spring, civil society organizations from throughout the U.S. are traveling to Geneva to educate members about violations of civil, political, economic and social human rights in the U.S.

For Monica Jones, a human rights advocate and transgender woman of color from Phoenix, AZ, the issues she will raise while in Geneva have directly impacted her own life. The target of discriminatory police profiling, Monica Jones was wrongfully arrested under an anti-prostitution police sweep program in Phoenix, called Project ROSE. After a long fight and an appeal, a judge dismissed Monica Jones’ charges earlier this month. However, like many transgender and gender non-conforming people of color, she is threatened by regular harassment by police, who use anti-sex work laws to intimidate and harm members of communities already vulnerable to discrimination. “As long as the police can target my community using these anti-sex work laws,” Ms. Jones notes, “we will never be safe from violence, including the violence of incarceration.”

Sex worker rights advocates participated in the prior review of the U.S. via the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, through which countries’ human rights records are submitted to scrutiny every four years. As a result, the U.S. adopted Recommendation 86, obligating it to increase human rights protections for sex workers. In advance of the review this year, advocates with Best Practices Policy Project, Desiree Alliance, and Sex Workers Outreach Project-NY submitted a report to the HRC, demonstrating that the U.S. has failed to live up to the promises of Recommendation 86.

The report, written in consultation with sex workers and their allies throughout the country, shows that criminalization and stigmatization of sex workers, and those profiled as such, exposes them to rape, extortion, assault, harassment, and discrimination at the hands of law enforcement. Criminalization and stigma can also lead to denial of housing, healthcare, parenting and other reproductive rights, education, incomes, and employment. The report demonstrates that the legal system frequently fails to recognize that sex workers can be victims of crime, and thus denies justice or support to sex workers who seek help. At a recent civil society meeting organized in advance of the UPR by the U.S. State Department, New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance member Janet Duran told officials that “most of the violence [sex workers] fall victim to is at the hands of the very people who should be protecting them.”

Advocates are concerned that the U.S. exports stigma and discrimination through policies such as the “anti-prostitution loyalty oath” attached to development funding. “We will ask the world to hold the U.S. accountable for making sex workers vulnerable to human rights abuses,” said J.M. Kirby of the Best Practices Policy Project. “Our country should be promoting human rights for all, including sex workers, not shaming people because of the work that they do.”

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