Stephanie Harris was working as a prostitute for two years before she met the man who would become her pimp. He wouldn’t let her eat or go home until she met her quota for the day. Sometimes, she was left on Aurora Avenue in Seattle for 16 to 18 hours at a time.
“After I left my pimp, I really did attempt to clean up my act,” Harris told lawmakers at a hearing of the House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday. She turned herself in to police and faced charges that had accumulated during her time on the streets.
“But I found what was happening is I couldn’t find a job, I couldn’t get an apartment,” she said. “I had a kid that I was trying to fight and get back, but those charges just didn’t look good for me.”
Harris asked lawmakers to pass House Bill 2668, which would allow people to vacate their convictions if they can show their crimes were a result of being a victim of trafficking or being compelled into prostitution. Once a court vacates a conviction, it no longer shows up on a criminal record.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, said the proposal builds upon a bill signed into law two years ago allowing a person to vacate prostitution convictions if he or she was a victim of trafficking.
Orwall said that she’s heard from both private attorneys and those working at the city and county levels that they’ve had trouble moving forward on that 2014 law.
“We are back again today because a lot of the survivors have tried to use this new law and have ran into some problems,” Orwall said. “So we thought we would try and see what we could do to make this usable.”
Survivors of trafficking testified in favor of the bill on Tuesday.
Because of her criminal convictions, Amber Walker said she has encountered several barriers while trying to rebuild her life. She said traffickers used drugs to “enslave” her.
“When I was in the life, I certainly wasn’t getting drugs through charity. They were given to me in exchange for my body. I was introduced to drugs by my traffickers to keep me under control,” Walker said.
Walker said that many of the people that trafficked her for sex also trafficked her to sell drugs. “They said I looked innocent and that police will never suspect me,” she said.
Jeri Moomaw is a trafficking survivor and now works with Washington Engage, an anti-human trafficking nonprofit. She says one of the hardest things is getting reintegrated into regular life.
“It’s really sad to get a call from a fellow survivor who is doing amazing, that’s crying and crying saying, ‘I can’t get a job that pays a living wage because of my convictions,’” she said.
Moomaw said she would also like to see a change in the process required to vacate a conviction. Right now, if a survivor is trying to vacate their prostitution conviction they must fill out a form re-telling their “trauma.” She thinks that filing out an affidavit should be the only requirement.
“I found out that the form that has you line out all of your trauma is public record,” she said. “So potentially somebody could attain that public record and that could end up on Google.”
Heidi Sargent, assistant city prosecuting attorney with the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said the office in recent years has shifted the emphasis on prosecuting those who are buying sex.
But still, she says the office recognizes there is a lot of prostitution-related crime besides prostitution itself.
“We haven’t gotten to the point yet of addressing that and that would be a difficult thing to do,” she said. “We find that [the bill] is very good step forward and would remove some very serious barriers and would help break the cycle.”
As for Harris — she hopes that the bill will help people like her older sister leave prostitution.
“If you talked to my sister right now she would say,’what’s the point? I’ve been in over half my life, look at this list of charges.’ She’s been under the control of pimps since she was 14. So why get out now,” Harris said though tears.
All of those who testified Tuesday were in support of the bill.