Students and faculty at Rutgers Law School filed test case after changing a law that will give countless human trafficking victims the opportunity to erase criminal records for crimes their traffickers forced them to commit
Human trafficking survivors have no control over who they see, what they wear, or where they go. They are exploited for their traffickers' financial gain and live under constant threat of injury or death. Many trafficked people are forced into prostitution or sex work. Others are forced to steal. Many trafficked individuals are forcefully injected with addictive drugs, like heroin, so that they become dependent on their traffickers.
Here in New Jersey, legislation was ahead of the curve, allowing trafficking victims to have prostitution-related convictions vacated if their crimes were committed while being trafficked. But it didn’t go far enough, says Penny Venetis, distinguished clinical professor of law and director of Rutgers Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. “Trafficking victims are forced to do anything and everything as long as it makes money for their trafficker,” she says. “There are so many other crimes that a trafficked person were convicted of that weren’t taken into account under New Jersey's old law.”
The International Human Rights Clinic sprung into action. Along with its partners in the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking (NJCAHT), an organization that coordinates statewide efforts to end sex and labor trafficking in New Jersey, the Clinic helped introduce and pass a statute that expanded the vacatur law so that all crimes that trafficking victims were forced to commit can be permanently erased. They educated legislators on the need for an updated law, provided policy statements, and prepared testimony. Rutgers Law students had the opportunity to contribute by conducting research and amplifying the voices and stories of trafficked people.
On January 18, 2022, Governor Phil Murphy signed the new bill into law. It allows human trafficking survivors to have practically any crime vacated if they could prove it was a result of trafficking (with few exceptions for murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, sexual assault, and luring a minor). Since criminal records have historically prevented trafficking survivors from securing employment and safe housing, this change directly impacts countless victims who are trying to get back on their feet. “Allowing these convictions for trafficking survivors to be vacated and expunged is a huge step in allowing people to lead as close to a normal life as they can, without having their past haunt them,” Venetis says.
This spring, the Clinic filed the first test case under the new law. A vacatur petition was filed on behalf of a woman who was trafficked by over five men for nearly 20 years, starting when she was 14 years old. In addition to prostitution convictions, the Clinic's client had convictions stemming from her traffickers' requiring her to steal jewelry and other valuables from patrons of Atlantic City casinos and resort areas around the country. If she did not give her traffickers thousands of dollars worth of goods every night, she was beaten, raped, and locked in a room with no food or clothing. The Clinic's court submissions were so compelling that the state of New Jersey is not opposing their petition and has joined the Clinic in asking the court to vacate and expunge all of the Clinic's client's convictions.
The Clinic is also helping lawyers in other states to draft petitions to vacate their client's convictions. The Clinic's success in New Jersey is helping to expeditiously move those cases forward.
Working on this matter served as a significant learning opportunity for Rutgers Law students. “We worked with a large coalition that prepared students to collaborate with people across disciplines, from medical professionals to social workers to the victims themselves,” Venetis says. “It shows them that as lawyers and ambassadors of Rutgers Law, we can change the law and really make a difference in people’s lives.”