Amid Public Uproar, California Lawmaker Says Blocking Child Trafficking Bill Was ‘Bad Decision’

The Assembly’s Public Safety Committee blocked the trafficking bill even as the state faces a rise in victims and a new film ‘Sound of Freedom’ spotlights the problem.

The California State Capitol is located in Sacramento.
The California State Capitol is located in Sacramento. (photo: Bobkeenan Photography / Shutterstock)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On Tuesday, California Assembly member Liz Ortega, D-San Leandro, voted with other Democrats on the powerful Public Safety Committee to block a bill that would increase penalties for felony child sex-trafficking for repeat offenders.

Two days later, after a furor on Twitter and a public intervention by California Governor Gavin Newsom, the Public Safety Committee was forced to take up the trafficking bill for a second time, and this time its members, Ortega included, approved it.

“I made a bad decision,” Ortega tweeted July 13, after the bill moved on to the Appropriations Committee. “Voting against legislation targeting really bad people who traffic children was wrong. I regret doing that and I am going to help get this important legislation passed into law.”

The proposed legislation, California Senate Bill 14, would add the trafficking of a minor to the state’s controversial “Three Strikes” law, which stiffens penalties for repeat offenses of serious felonies. In specific cases, a third strike can result in a prison sentence of 25 years to life.

Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told the Register that the bishops in the state were also concerned about the impact of the Three Strikes law, but they supported Senate Bill 14. “Generally, the bishops do not support the Three Strikes law, because it has been shown to be ineffective and to result in the over-crowding of jails without a lot of rehabilitation,” Domingo explained. 

“We support sentence reduction and restorative justice to help rehabilitate people so they can reenter society. 

“Senate Bill 14 was a departure for us,” she added. “It was saying that as long as we have a Three Strikes law, certain crimes should fall under that and the sexual trafficking of minors is one of those crimes.”

The Public Safety Committee’s initial vote to block the bill appeared to ignore or downplay the growing problem of human trafficking in the Golden State. Further, the committee’s surprising move came as U.S. theaters screened Sound of Freedom, a new film that has raised awareness about the impact and reach of criminal networks transporting young victims across national borders.

But if powerful members of the state assembly appeared clueless or indifferent to this scourge, Gov. Newsom, who is widely viewed as preparing for a possible 2024 presidential bid, was prepared to cross swords with progressive lawmakers and expose the fissures within the state’s dominant party.

On Wednesday, Newsom emphasized that he “cares deeply” about the problem of minors being trafficked for sex, and noted that the most recent state budget set aside $25 million to provide services for child victims. 

He said that he had contacted Assembly members to register his concern.

“I want to understand exactly what happened yesterday (in the committee),” Newsom said. “I take it very seriously.”

Newsom’s move was welcomed by the bill’s sponsors, but also by some media commentators who were appalled by the spectacle unfolding at the statehouse.

Tom Philp, a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist at the Sacramento Bee, excoriated the legislature’s Democratic supermajority in an opinion column for the paper.

Philp suggested the bill’s shoddy treatment “exposed the excesses and arrogance within the California Legislature’s dominant one-party rule. Such power comes with a great responsibility to respect the view of the majority of the Legislature and the public at large. The Democrats on the Assembly Public Safety Committee ignored that responsibility on Tuesday, to their great embarrassment on Thursday.”

Sponsors of the bill said it was needed to help strengthen penalties for repeat offenders, and the proposed legislation sailed through the California Senate earlier this year.

But key Democrat Assembly members contend that tougher laws disproportionately affect people of color, and the state has largely pulled back from the tough-on-crime era of the 1990s. 

Democrats in the California Assembly have also questioned whether passage of the bill would actually result in additional protections for would-be victims.

“Spending billions of dollars on punishment means those dollars are unavailable to help victims and prevent the crime from happening in the first place,” said Assembly member Jones-Sawyer in a statement. “Criminals already take up a disproportionate amount of funding — spending more to punish more is a poor use of state resources.”

The bill’s Republican sponsor pushed back against its critics. “This is a very measured, very narrow bill,” said Sen. Shannon Grove, R- Bakersfield. “It only addresses those that traffic and sell our children for sex.”

And this week, during a passionate exchange on the floor of the Assembly, Assembly member Heath Flora, R-Ripon, told the majority leader Isaac Bryan, D-Culver City, that lawmakers needed to choose a side to support — “pick pedophiles or children.” 

Bryan rejected that characterization of the Democrats’ position, but the party leadership’s decision to make the Public Safety Committee take up the matter for a second time suggested that they understood the poor optics of blocking the bill.

Meanwhile, GOP Assembly leader James Gallagher of Chico marked an unusual but important victory for his party, which has little influence in the state legislature.

“It shouldn’t be this hard to protect our kids,” said Gallagher. “I think the California public is saying enough is enough. The pendulum has to swing back to a reasonable middle, where we are actually protecting the people of this state.”