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Trafficking Survivors and the Criminal Justice System

A felony record makes recovery and return to normalcy difficult.

Key points

  • While trafficked, survivors are often forced to commit felonies.
  • A criminal record can keep trafficking survivors from a decent job or good housing.
  • Legal volunteers exist who can help them clear their records.

People who have escaped from being trafficked are up against at least two levels of life-altering difficulties. The first is the obvious one—the trauma of being coerced into servitude (and in the event of sex trafficking, being forced to have sex with strangers repeatedly and frequently). The second is also long-lasting and difficult to recover from: They may have forced by their abuser to commit crimes that guarantee difficulty in living outside “the life.”

A conviction on their record means they may find it difficult to get a good job, enter into supportive relationships, and find decent housing. An added problem is the possibility of a bench warrant against them for not having showed up at court hearings; it means living in fear that something like a random traffic stop could land them in jail.

How Do They Get a Criminal Record?

By the way, trafficking impacts all people, from all backgrounds, geographic locations and sexual orientations. It affects women, men, boys and LGBTQIA2S+. This article will use only the pronoun “she” but solely for ease of reading purposes.

How does a trafficking survivor wind up with a criminal record? First, there is the fact that sex traffickers are forcing trafficked individuals into prostitution, a crime that accounts for perhaps the largest percentage of survivor convictions and bench warrants. However, survivors may also end up with a record for other crimes related to their trafficking, such as theft, drug possession, forgery, assault, and more. Traffickers know that having a criminal record puts victims even more at risk, which helps keep the victims under their control.

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Adobe Stock

When the trafficking victim knows that she faces jail time any moment her abuser wants it to happen, that gives the trafficker an additional power tool. She’ll also now be deeply afraid of going to police, partly because her abuser has made sure that she’s terrified of them and considers them the enemy, and partly because she’s afraid of ending up behind bars.

Fortunately, there’s free legal help for trafficking survivors with convictions and/or bench warrants on their records. Michelle Stegmann, an attorney from New Jersey and the administrator for the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking, works with Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, clearing convictions through New Jersey’s vacatur law and seeking dismissals of bench warrants issued against trafficking survivors. When a criminal record is vacated, the criminal record is removed entirely, with the acknowledgement that the original conviction was an error. This is a particular powerful remedy, as it sends a message to the survivor that “this should not have happened to you,” thereby providing them with a sense of empowerment.

The legal remedies were pioneered in 2010 in New York, and have since spread to most other states. New Jersey first passed a vacatur law in 2013 and in 2022 significantly expanded the protections available under it.

Stacey’s Experience

“Stacey” isn’t the survivor’s real name, and the details of her experience have been disguised, as attorney-client confidentiality prohibits the discussion of the facts of a specific individual.

Stacey was trafficked for seven years in New Jersey. Her trafficker would regularly force her to deal drugs or pass bad checks. These were low-level crimes, and Stacey appeared before a judge for a hearing, after which she was released on her own recognizance and ordered to return to court for later proceedings.

The goal of the trafficker—and the attorney hired by the trafficker—was to get Stacey back on the street as quickly as possible, earning money.

Stacey’s trafficker then moved her to a different state, so she never showed up for the court-ordered proceeding. When she didn’t show up, the judge issued a bench warrant, saying words along the lines of, “Find her and arrest her because she violated my order.”

Stacey eventually managed to escape her trafficker, but for the next 15 years, she knew that any kind of police stop or other interaction with the law would trigger a search for her records, and she could immediately be taken into custody.

Having this hanging over her head meant that for 15 years, she couldn’t visit her family in Honduras. When she did get a job, in customer service at a bank, her company discovered her record and refused to place her in a management position because of it. As a result, she suffered through low pay and career stagnation, the effects borne by both her and her child.

A Free Solution to a Difficult Problem

Fortunately, Stacey heard about Volunteer Lawyers for Justice (VLJ), a civil legal aid organization based in Newark, New Jersey. VLJ placed Stacey’s case with Stegmann, who was able to offer her free legal services and advocated for dismissal of her bench warrant.

Stacey secured a job at a different bank and is now earning far more than before. Further, Stacey now has the title and compensation that go with managerial position. She was also able to pass the criminal background check needed for her to get a passport and see her family in Honduras.

Stacey’s life has changed enormously for the better. Stegmann wishes that more trafficking survivors knew about the laws that can help them remove their criminal records and/or bench warrants. Stacey notes that few trafficking survivors are aware that free of charge, they can use the law to help them get out from under the criminal records they have because their traffickers forced them to commit crimes.


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