Donna Bruce, a 47-year-old survivor of sex trafficking, is lobbying the Maryland General Assembly for laws that would enable victims to clear their criminal records. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

Donna Bruce stood before a beauty class in Baltimore in 2011. She was in her late 30s and teaching around 20 students the physiology of hair, a passion of hers since she was young. What they didn’t know, or she didn’t think they knew, was her past. When she was a teenager, her mom trafficked her for drugs and money.

“She would set things up and call it a party,” Bruce said. “She was collecting drugs and dispensing me.” Later, the men from the parties took over, coercing her to have sex with others in return for drugs or money. So went her life for years, as she accumulated a criminal record — prostitution, drug possession, theft, indecent exposure.

One day in the beauty classroom two decades later, as she tried to make another life for herself, one of her students opened up Maryland’s criminal records database and began reading Bruce’s long list of charges and convictions.

“The student said I was a crackhead who has prostitution on her record out loud in front of everybody,” Bruce said. “It was the most humiliating thing.”

Bruce relapsed to her old addictions. She lost her job.

Although her mother had died and she had escaped her other traffickers, Bruce was learning that she would never really escape. Not while her criminal records were public for all to see.

Maryland is among the worst in the nation when it comes to criminal records relief for sex-trafficking survivors, according to a new study. One of its authors is Jessica Emerson, director of the Human Trafficking Prevention Project at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Out of 40 states and the District with some sex-trafficking statutes for adult survivors, Maryland ranks dead last. The other 10 states were not ranked because they either had no criminal records relief laws for sex-trafficking survivors or only laws for minor victims.

The study comes as Maryland’s General Assembly considers a bill that would make it easier for survivors to have their criminal records cleared; Bruce has testified in support.

The study looked at federal and state criminal record relief statutes intended for victims of human trafficking arrested or prosecuted as adults and was completed by authors at the University of Baltimore School of Law, the Brooklyn Law School, the Survivor Reentry Project and Polaris, a nonprofit based in the District that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline and advocates to end human trafficking.

Maryland ranks so poorly primarily because it fails to offer relief from a range of convictions obtained as a result of trafficking, and because it has a relatively difficult process for removing convictions, including prior approval from the State’s Attorney’s office.

Back in 2011, the same year that Bruce stood before the cosmetology class, Maryland looked like it was on the way to becoming one of the most progressive states in the nation for helping survivors emerge from their criminal records. The state legislature passed a bill to allow victims of human trafficking to have prostitution convictions cleared — only the second state in the nation to do so after New York.

But it wasn’t enough, as the advocates and lawyers eventually found out.

“Survivors had been forced by their traffickers to commit criminal acts other than prostitution,” Emerson said.

In Bruce’s case, for example, she had been asked to deal drugs, steal food and “turn tricks” in abandoned homes.

When she found out that she could remove the prostitution conviction, she didn’t bother because of everything else on her record.

“It can be re-traumatizing to go through the justice system, so why put yourself out there if it’s not going to help with all the other convictions?” Emerson asked.

Emerson, who has worked with sex-trafficked survivors since 2002, said many do not report being trafficked when they are arrested for other crimes because they were threatened by their trafficker, or they didn’t know what was happening to them was a crime.

In Bruce’s circumstance, she said she had been stabbed and assaulted to the point of hospitalization for not obeying her trafficker’s orders.

But even when victims did report trafficking, many victims still were arrested, Emerson said.

“I’m not sure what the criminal legal system is asking survivors to do if they are damned if they do report and damned if they don’t,” Emerson said.

Meanwhile, other states around that nation had begun to understand the extra burdens sex-trafficking survivors faced and passed more expansive laws to remove convictions obtained while victims were being trafficked.

In 2016, the National Survivor Network surveyed survivors of human trafficking and found that 91 percent of 130 trafficking survivor respondents had been arrested. Forty percent had reported being arrested nine times or more. The common arrests were for prostitution, solicitation, drug possession and drug dealing.

Bruce said she never told police about her traffickers. “You would get killed in Baltimore,” she said, noting the level of underground retaliatory justice in the city.

Bruce has continued to have ups and downs, most recently after losing her dream job as an educational director at a Baltimore beauty firm.

“The last conversation I had with the owners, I told them I was going to testify in Annapolis about sex trafficking.” She thinks they let her go in part due to her criminal background and in part because she had complained that managers were not paying her as much as a male counterpart.

Understanding the scope of sex trafficking in Maryland and across the country is difficult because it is thought to be underreported. But there are data to show it’s a significant problem.

There have been 668 sex-trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline from Maryland between Dec. 7, 2007, and June 30, 2018, making Maryland 15th in the nation, according to Polaris.

In 2018, federal prosecutors in Maryland filed criminal charges against 15 defendants in human trafficking cases, according to the Human Trafficking Institute. Fourteen of the defendants were in sex-trafficking cases. That was up nearly 200 percent from 2017.

Last August, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced a number of human-trafficking initiatives including $5 million to provide human trafficking victims with direct services such as emergency shelters, a 24-hour talk line, street outreach and legal advocacy.

The bill moving through Maryland’s General Assembly, the “True Freedom Act of 2019,” would allow courts to remove certain convictions such as drug possession and misdemeanor theft if they were a result of a victim’s human trafficker.

It would also make the process of removing convictions easier by allowing a victim to petition to remove convictions without the approval of the State’s Attorney.

Sponsored by Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard) and Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery), the bill was initially opposed by the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association.

But Caroline County State’s Attorney Joe Riley said they now back it with amendments clarifying the standard of evidence required to vacate the conviction and a revised process to allow state’s attorneys to “fast track” approvals.

Riley said he was moved by Bruce and other trafficked witnesses testifying on the bill late February in front of the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“We are administers of justice,” Riley said. “If you are trying to get your life back on track, we want to help that.”

Riley was awarded the Heroes’ Award from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children along with several other law enforcement officials last year for convicting a Caroline County couple of human trafficking after they injected a 15-year-old girl with heroin and forced her to perform sex acts with adult men in December 2016.

Bruce is now advocating publicly to help others. She’s become a certified peer recovery specialist and registered medical assistant. If the bill passes, she said she wants to get a job at one of the hospitals in Baltimore, which have so far rejected her due to her criminal record, or her job back as director of education at the beauty firm.

— Baltimore Sun