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How $40 Can Land You in Prison for Seven Years and on the Sex Offender Registry for Life

Laws fail to distinguish sex work from sex trafficking.

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout; Adapted: Bark)

In December, after more than seven years behind bars, 32-year-old LeeAnn walked out of federal prison. But she’s not a free woman — she will spend the rest of her life on the sex offender registry. Her crime? Letting a girl shower in her mother’s apartment, giving her a clean change of clothes and holding the girl’s $40 while she had sex with a man in another room.

These are normal actions in the daily life of sex workers trying to keep themselves and each other safe. But the girl turned out to be 14 and, in the eyes of the federal government, these acts constitute sex trafficking of a minor. It didn’t matter that the girl had told LeeAnn that she was 17. It also didn’t matter that LeeAnn, who was addicted to various drugs and also engaged in sex work, never made money from the girl’s actions. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the girl was considered a trafficking victim, and LeeAnn a trafficker.

One year later, federal agents questioned LeeAnn. She was high at the time and doesn’t remember much, but she does remember admitting to everything. “I didn’t realize it was a federal offense,” she told Truthout. “That’s normal in that life.”

LeeAnn pled guilty and was sentenced to 87 months in federal prison, five years of probation and a lifetime on the sex offender registry.

The danger of sex trafficking has become a rallying cry for law enforcement, prosecutors and politicians. Furthermore, sex work and sex trafficking are often conflated, aided by inflated (and wrong) statistics and sensationalized stories, and reflected in laws that fail to distinguish sex work from trafficking. When minors are involved, prosecutors and courts come down especially hard. But in the rush to “save” people, little attention is paid to sex workers swept into the dragnet of these laws — and then subject to prison and a lifetime of punishment. The FBI reported 744 arrests for human trafficking for sex work in 2015, a steep jump from the 399 arrests the year before. Of the 439 trafficking convictions secured by the US Department of Justice in 2016, 425 were for sex trafficking. But the numbers aren’t broken down into how many convictions were handed to people who coerced, threatened or forced other people into sex work, how many were coerced, threatened or forced themselves, and how many were simply engaged in sex work and arrested for helping another sex worker.

On the state level, data about human trafficking (both sex and labor trafficking) was only added to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting in 2013. That first year, only 13 states turned in data, making it impossible to gauge how many people have been arrested, let alone prosecuted and imprisoned. Furthermore, the legal definition of sex trafficking varies by state. For instance, as previously reported in Truthout, in Alaska, advertising sexual services or co-managing or owning a building where sex work takes place is considered trafficking.

Even the federal government is starting to acknowledge that sex workers are being charged as traffickers. The 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report also notes that “advocates reported the continued criminalization of victims for crimes committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking, and urged federal, state, local, and tribal agencies to adopt policies not to criminalize victims.”

Even Teenagers Face Years in Prison for Trafficking

Under federal law, anyone under the age of 18 who is engaged in sex work is considered to be trafficked even if they did not do so under force, threat or coercion. But even teenagers who are legally considered trafficking victims can still face trafficking charges — and harsh prison sentences.

That’s what happened to 19-year-old Hope Joy Mae Zeferjohn, who, in August 2017, was sentenced to 71 months in prison for aggravated human trafficking of a minor. Three years earlier, Zeferjohn, then age 16, sent messages on Facebook to a 14 year old she had met at a church camp. Through Facebook, she introduced the 14 year old to 26-year-old Anthony Long. Long wanted the younger teen to live with him and Zeferjohn, and work as a sex worker. The girl never met Long; instead, she reported these messages to her parents, who alerted police. The police arrested both Long and Zeferjohn.

Long was charged and pled guilty to attempted aggravated human trafficking, felony child sexual exploitation (for having nude pictures of unidentified teen girls on his cell phone) and indecent solicitation of a child and electronic solicitation. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Police and prosecutors viewed Zeferjohn not as a trafficking victim, but as Long’s accomplice. To them, her age at the time didn’t matter. It also didn’t matter that the younger teen had never actually met Long and that no commercial sex had taken place. Zeferjohn was charged with nine felonies, including aggravated human trafficking, conspiracy to commit rape and indecent solicitation of a child. Facing a potential 15 years in prison, she too, pled guilty, and is now serving her sentence in a Kansas state prison. She must register as a sex offender upon release.

Zeferjohn’s prosecution is not an anomaly. In July 2017, a 15 year old in Brown County, Wisconsin, was arrested alongside an adult man and woman as part of a sex trafficking investigation. Claudine O’Leary, former director of Chicago’s Young Women’s Empowerment Project and now a youth advocate in Milwaukee, notes that Wisconsin law still allows a minor to be charged with prostitution.

“There’s no barrier to charging a minor with sex trafficking-type of offenses,” O’Leary told Truthout. Youth can be charged with human trafficking and trafficking of a child if they are with a younger person. However, O’Leary noted, those charges are rare. Instead, allegations of trafficking are raised in juvenile court, which may influence a judge to consider the youth a risk to themselves or others, and place them in secure detention or a residential treatment center. But given the confidential nature of juvenile courts, how often this happens is unknown.

For teenagers who are homeless and/or in foster care, implications of trafficking younger teens is likely to result in being locked out of the few placements available to them, such as group homes within the county. The likelihood of being sent to secure detention or youth prison increases as the number of placements willing to take a teenager decreases. Plus, once a youth turns 18, the penalties for those same actions become much harsher. O’Leary has seen teens she’s worked with in shelters, groups homes and juvenile detention centers during their younger years get prosecuted for trafficking of a child once they turn 18.

According to Kate Mogulescu, former director of the Exploitation Intervention Project at the Legal Aid Society and lead attorney of the Survivor Reentry Project, state-level prosecutions mirror the phenomenon seen at the federal level with trafficking prosecutions leveled against young women, often ages 18 and 19, who are involved with other, younger teens.

Incarcerated Sex Workers Build Resistance

In prison, LeeAnn met other women from across the country convicted under similar circumstances. “There’s a lot of girls in prison that were caught up in the same situation,” she said. They began writing letters to various organizations seeking help; one of those organizations was the Exploitation Intervention Project, which works with thousands of people charged with prostitution offenses throughout New York City.

From those letters, Mogulescu recalled, common themes emerged. All had been engaged in commercial sex themselves. Some had been exploited; others had chosen their work, and had been involved in sex work for years, sometimes going back to their own teen years. “They saw themselves in these younger women,” Mogulescu explained, referring to sex workers incarcerated for “trafficking” younger women. They gave the younger women advice on how to engage in sex work more safely — from how to identify potentially dangerous clients, to which places to avoid. But in the eyes of the law, when a minor is involved, those actions constitute sex trafficking.

The law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP helped Mogulescu, now a clinical law professor at Brooklyn Law School, file an information request for the gender, age and racial breakdown of federal prosecutions under trafficking statutes. What they learned was that, from 2009 to 2014, women made up 23 percent (or 149 people) of the 612 people charged. Of the 143 women for whom age was available, 35 percent were ages 20 to 24. Twenty-two percent were only slightly older, ages 25 to 29. For 105 of these women, the average sentence was 91 months. (Data was not available for the other 44 women.)

Women of color, who are disproportionately targeted by police, made up the majority of prosecuted women. Sixty of those prosecuted were Black, 24 were Hispanic, 17 were Asian and two were identified as Indigenous. Forty white women were prosecuted.

“Is this the purpose of our federal human trafficking criminal law? To prosecute 20- to 24-year-old women of color involved in the commercial sex industry?” Mogulescu asked, adding that state-level prosecutions mirror those on the federal level.

Part of this might stem from overcharging, or threatening the harshest criminal charges possible. It’s a tactic that Mogulescu calls “the standard criminal legal system response — overcharge and work it out later.” Yet for many, like LeeAnn, that later may never work out. “Even if they did cooperate and give information, they still end up with a significant prison sentence because they start with [the threat of] a 15-to-life sentence,” Mogulescu noted.

Out of Prison, but Still Restricted by the Registry

After seven years, leaving prison should have been a happy day for LeeAnn. But when her father and brother picked her up, they didn’t celebrate with her first non-prison meal. Instead, because LeeAnn was required to register as a sex offender within 48 hours, they drove for more than three hours to the sheriff’s office where she waited another three hours to register.

“When I got in there, I sat down in front of this man … [who] read off every single rule,” LeeAnn remembered. The list of rules went on and on. They included requirements that, for any password-protected account she created, from Facebook to email, she must report the account and provide all passwords. After reading off each rule, he told her that if she did not provide the stipulated information within 48 hours, she faced a third-degree felony. LeeAnn simply broke down and cried. “I can’t even tell you one thing that this man said to me as far as rules can concern, besides a third-degree felony. That’s all I can comprehend,” she told her dad after walking out of the office in tears.

Rebuilding a life with a felony record is difficult for nearly everyone. But being on the registry comes with a lengthy list of requirements that makes reentry even more difficult. LeeAnn, for example, must attend a weekly meeting for female sex offenders every Friday morning. LeeAnn works a construction job that pays hourly, and must miss three hours of work each week to fulfill that requirement. She also must attend biweekly individual counseling sessions during working hours. Because she does not have her driver’s license, her father must also miss work — and several hours of pay — to drive her to and from these meetings.

On her first Friday home, her daughter set up a Facebook account for her. LeeAnn spent the entire Saturday trying to call her probation officer and registry to report the account. When no one answered, she panicked and called 911, telling the dispatcher, “I just got out of prison and I have to register, and they told me I have to report this information. I have these changes and nobody’s answering, and I don’t want to go to jail.”

Unlike many on the sex offender registry, LeeAnn is not restricted from contact with children, including her own teen daughter. But she still faces stigma and threats of violence that interfere with parenting in other ways. When her daughter’s softball team called for parent volunteers, LeeAnn’s probation officer prohibited her from volunteering, concerned about the potential for a violent confrontation if another parent learned that LeeAnn is on the registry. “This really sucks because my daughter is down there four nights a week,” said LeeAnn.

Looking back, LeeAnn wishes that help — rather than incarceration — had been available. But there aren’t diversion programs for people charged with sex trafficking. Even New York State’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts do not offer services to those charged with trafficking; instead, people arrested for sex work are diverted to those courts for mandatory services rather than jail time.

What would real help look like, in a situation like this? LeeAnn has a suggestion: She credits the 500-hour long Residential Drug Abuse Program, which she participated in while incarcerated, with changing her life. There, she says, she learned about identifying and managing her feelings, communication, relapse prevention and coping skills, none of which she had ever learned before. “We could get that [program] out of prison and introduce it to the community, maybe even as early as elementary school,” she reflected, adding that most children, including herself, aren’t taught to identify and cope with negative feelings. “There are programs that they can offer to help girls, and people in general, before it gets that bad.”

Of course, even if such a program were implemented in every school across the country, it would come too late for LeeAnn herself. But what could help LeeAnn and others in her situation now, says Mogulescu, is a push to remove people from the sex offender registry. “There are numerous problems with the registry, not just for sex workers but for everyone,” she pointed out. “Registries have no impact or benefit for public safety. We could start by decoupling registration from sentencing. We also need to give people a realistic way to get off the registry.”

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