The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump administration cuts legal funding for victims of human trafficking

Suzanne Beck of the Victims Resource Center pours red sand in the grooves of bricks on July 30 in the Public Square in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., as a symbol of those who have fallen victim to human trafficking, in connection with World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. (Sean Mckeag/AP)
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President Trump’s administration has mandated that federal funds used to help human trafficking victims clear their criminal records, often accrued while forced into prostitution or sex slavery, no longer be spent for that purpose. After a burst of protests last year did not change the Justice Department’s decision, four top Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Attorney General William P. Barr this week asking why his department made changes that “fly in the face of the spirit and plain language” of laws passed to help trafficking victims.

A study by the National Survivor Network found that more than 90 percent of survivors of human trafficking had been arrested, and about half of them had been arrested at least 10 times. “Trafficking survivors who have criminal records,” said Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, “are unable to get access to affordable housing, employment in the career of their choice, higher education, because they continue to have to explain and discuss a criminal record that was unfairly put upon them in the first place.”

Child sex trafficking survivor Beth Jacobs, now a victims advocate, told the National Survivor Network that she couldn’t rent an apartment in her name, couldn’t have her name on the mailbox and sometimes had to hide from landlords because background checks by property management firms found her criminal record. “It’s horrible to live that way,” Jacobs said.

Read the letter from House Judiciary Committee members to Attorney General Barr

Congress recognized this problem years ago and, around 2004, passed legislation that specifically provided funds for lawyers to seek both vacaturs — which clear convictions — and expungements, removing convictions from permanent records, Bruggeman said. State court systems have various ways to vacate and expunge convictions, but experts said it requires a lawyer to successfully navigate the paperwork, hearings and assorted legal hurdles of each system.

But suddenly last year, the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime inserted this line into its grant applications for aid to trafficking victims: “Direct representation on vacatur or expungement matters through court filings or through other litigation services, is NOT an allowable cost under this cooperative agreement or with FY 2018 funds.” Other programs for trafficking victims are still being funded.

Bruggeman said, “From speaking with people within the [Justice] Department, this was not a recommendation from the staff [of the Office for Victims of Crime]. This was something that came from the top, from the political side.”

Members of Congress, trafficking victims, victims’ rights organizations, local prosecutors and the American Bar Association all raised protests last year with the Justice Department. The department responded to the ABA and Congress with letters that said excluding legal help for victims was done “to preserve resources for the many other critical services provided under these grants.” The nearly identical letters, signed by assistant attorneys general Stephen E. Boyd and Alan R. Hanson, reminded that attorneys could still offer referrals to people offering victim services locally, and that they could still use money sent by the federal government to state crime victims’ funds, though states may dole out those funds according to their own priorities and are not required to address any vacatur or expungement cases.

The federal money “is directly from Congress for the purpose of providing for the specific need of human trafficking survivors,” Bruggeman said. “So to restrict this dedicated funding for no good reason is ridiculous.”

A spokesman for the Justice Department said the department was preparing a response and declined to comment further on Friday.

Nat Paul, policy director of the National Survivor Network, said it appeared the government had switched its view on clearing up victims’ records from a civil process to a criminal matter, which has to be handled by prosecutors, even though in the current process prosecutors are able to weigh in on the viability of expungement, and judges make the final call. She also noted that male victims of trafficking are often charged with offenses other than prostitution, such as drug and gun crimes, requiring more than a helpful referral to get cleared.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., who wrote a letter to the Justice Department last year after the change was first announced, said Friday that “it’s undeniable that many prostituted men and women, boys and girls, are actually victims of human and sex trafficking. And it’s undeniable they have accumulated arrests and conviction for prostitution because they were trafficked. So if we are serious about fighting sex trafficking, which should be a given, let’s help, which is what this critical funding for legal assistance would provide.”

On Tuesday, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee — along with Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), the vice chair; Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who chairs the crime and homeland security subcommittee; and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) — sent a letter to the attorney general noting that support for trafficking victims had long been bicameral and bipartisan. But “the Department of Justice moved in the opposite direction,” the representatives wrote, “by adopting policies that prohibit the use of grant funding for survivors of human trafficking to access critical legal representation.” The letter seeks internal Justice Department documentation justifying the prohibition of funds for trafficking victims’ vacatur and expungement cases by Aug. 15.

“Congress had made it clear that victims of human trafficking deserve the opportunity to reclaim their lives,” Nadler told The Washington Post on Friday. "The administration’s move to restrict the use of funding for expungement is not only regressive but cruel. The administration must provide us with answers regarding this decision.”