Measure in Wash. would help sex trafficking victims clear convictions

by: ALEXIS MYERS, Associated Press Updated:

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OLYMPIA, Wash. - Jessica Wolfe was forced into sex trafficking shortly after her 19th birthday. Years later, after running away from her pimp, she continues to struggle to find housing and a job after background checks find her prostitution convictions.

A measure passed last week in the Washington state Senate could make it easier for victims of trafficking to vacate prostitution convictions regardless if other offenses exist on their criminal record.

For Wolfe, the bill offers her hope that she can clear her convictions so she can apply to colleges and get a job as a gynecologist or an ultrasound technician.

"Once that's gone, there's nothing that can hold me back from doing anything that I want to do," said Wolfe, 26. "I want to have a career."

Under existing state law, victims cannot expunge prostitution convictions if other crimes exist on their criminal record.

Valiant Richey, a King County senior deputy prosecuting attorney, says he can't think of one person who has been able to vacate his or her prostitution convictions because most victims are forced to commit other crimes while under the control of a trafficker.

"We want people to succeed under this, but it's not possible There's nobody who qualifies," he said.

Richey noted a policy shift within the justice system from focusing on sex workers to johns. It reduced the number of prostitution charges to about a fifth of what they were several years ago in King County, he said.

Over the same period, the number of people caught patronizing a prostitute nearly doubled.

"They could be forced into it by a family member, friend or a complete stranger," Richey said. "It's hard to say how many people arrested for prostitution are trafficked because typically they're too scared to admit to it."

Wolfe said she'd had at least 10 different pimps, all of whom would take her belongings and threaten to kill her or her family if she ever tried to escape or go to the police.

King County Sheriff's Deputy Andy Conner, founder of the Genesis Project, a drop-in center for trafficked women, said he first met Wolfe while she was working one night on the "SeaTac strip" along Highway 99 in 2010, when his project was merely an idea.

"I wish there was something I could've done for her that night, but all I could do was listen to her story and come up with solutions," Conner said. "These girls aren't out there doing it because they want to."

Wolfe walked through the Genesis Project doors shortly after it opened in 2011. There, she was given a place to sleep, a meal, clothing and other necessities.

She was flown to California shortly afterward to receive counseling and treatment but later went back to prostituting because she said she couldn't make enough money to live on her own.

"I was trying so hard with no results, so I went back to doing it," she said.

Some oppose the legislation, which moves to a public hearing in the House on Thursday, because they fear people might continue to work in prostitution after vacating their crimes.

Republican Rep. Brad Klippert of Kennewick, who also serves as a sheriff's deputy for Benton County, said there should be more places where victims can go to make themselves safe and escape the people who are trapping them. But he fears this measure might allow some to abuse the system.

"I want them to be able to get out of it and stay out of it, but this bill says, 'Even if you get out of being trafficked, you can continue in prostitution,'" Klippert said. "When you stop committing crimes, we can talk about vacating a previous crime."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 27 other states have similar laws to expunge, vacate or seal criminal records related to being trafficked.

"If we're about making sure that people are not continuously harmed, this legislation is critical to that conversation," said Democratic Sen. Rebecca Saldana, sponsor of the Senate bill.

Wolfe has stayed out of prostitution for the past two years.

She lives with a close friend and is fighting for custody of her two children. She recently earned a GED diploma and got her driver's license.

Wolfe said she wanted to share her story to help others understand the importance of passing this legislation.

"I just want to be successful," Wolfe said. "I don't ever want to feel like I can't do something by myself."