BY SPENCER COLE
California Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo) came to Santa Maria on April 20 with one goal in mind—to spread awareness about human trafficking.
“It’s the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world,” he told the Sun before speaking in front of a small crowd of concerned citizens, local politicians, and law enforcement officials at Foursquare Church.
The event, Cunningham said, was an opportunity to educate the public and build a coalition across the hospitality industry, law enforcement, nonprofits, and the faith community to help combat the worldwide trafficking network prevalent across the country, California, and even in Santa Barbara County.
Some 300,000 kids nationwide are sex trafficked on any given day, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)—roughly the population equivalent to the city of Anaheim.
Santa Barbara County released a needs assessment conducted by its District Attorney’s Office’s task force in 2015, which quoted a FBI victim specialist calling the Central Coast a “hub” for sex trafficking. The county received a $1.34 million grant in 2016 from the DOJ, which according to Yleana Velasco, a victim witness advocate with the DA’s Office, helped authorities identify 50 sex workers within the county in 2017—15 were minors.In California, law enforcement from the state down to the local level have made eliminating human trafficking a high priority following a 2012 report from the state Attorney General’s Office. The report said that between 2008 and 2010, federally funded United States Human Trafficking Task Forces investigated 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking. Investigators classified eight out of 10 incidents as sex trafficking cases. At least 80 percent of the survivors were identified as U.S. citizens. More than 1,000 of the investigations involved allegations of child sex trafficking.
“I’ve worked in the District Attorney’s Office the last 24 years managing victim witness assistance programs. In that time and up to this point, I could have never imagined I’d be standing up here in 2018 talking about human trafficking in our own communities,” Victim Assistance Director Megan Riker-Rheinschild said.
Santa Maria Police Department Detective Jesus Caro, while not providing specific numbers, told the crowd on April 20 that the department as of a few months ago was working closely with the DA’s Office, its Victim Witness-Assistance Program, and the local the Rape Crisis Center.
“We now have an advocate that works with us in the Santa Maria Police Department at least two to three days a week,” Caro said, adding that in the past officer reports sent to the DA’s office about potential victims sometimes slipped through the cracks. “Now, having this advocate with us, it’s just a matter of me getting up from my desk and walking to her desk—no more than 15 steps.”
According to Cunningham, in 2017 nearly 4,000 calls about potential trafficking cases were made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, with more than 1,000 becoming legitimate cases.
Cunningham has packaged together four bills for the state Assembly that specifically target human trafficking. AB 1735 would expand protective orders for adult victims of pimping and pandering (the current law offers protections only to minors), as well as those trafficked for nonsexual purposes like labor. Cunningham also has a bill (AB 1736) aiming to amend how statements made by victims and witnesses of trafficking and sex crimes to law enforcement hold up in court.
The other two bills, AB 1737 and AB 1738, would “clean up” California’s six definitions of pandering—essentially facilitating sex acts and prostitution—and enact stricter enforcement on the sex offender registry by those who commit, or attempt sex acts with a minor or trafficking victim, respectively.
“The fight against human trafficking is one of the biggest moral issues of our time,” Cunningham said.