Students and faculty at Rutgers Law School helped change a law that will give countless human trafficking victims a real opportunity to leave their criminal past behind.
Human trafficking survivors are united by the shared experience of having their freedom stolen from them, being exploited for profit, and living under constant threat of injury or death. However, each trafficked person’s individual life experience is unique. Many are forced into sex work. Others are forced to steal. A number are coerced into becoming dependent on drugs, most commonly heroin.
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 can be convicted of that weren’t taken into account under this 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 a new bill that would expand the current law to allow other crimes to be vacated, as well. They educated legislators on the need for an updated law, provided policy statements, and prepared testimony. Rutgers Law students had the opportunity to contribute, too, 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 will have a direct impact on 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 trafficking past haunt them,” Venetis says. In fact, the Clinic will be leveraging the new law this spring, when it files a vacatur petition on behalf of one of its clients, a woman who was trafficked for nearly 20 years from the time she was 14 years old.
In addition to the impact this new law will have on trafficking survivors, the process of changing the law also 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 really make a difference in people’s lives.”