People Speak: Victim pushes for stricter human trafficking penalties

"I was constantly at risk of rape or murder,” says Leah Albright-Byrd while walking in a public park near Century City in Los Angeles. “I have a friend who was killed as a result of being exploited.”

When she was in eighth grade, Leah started living on the streets in Sacramento, Calif. She quickly became a victim of what law enforcement officials now call “human trafficking.”

“It was a very traumatizing experience,” she says. “I ran away from home at the age of 14.”

Almost immediately, she says, a pimp found her and began selling her for sex on the Internet throughout the state of California.

“There were quite a few things that made me really vulnerable to being sexually exploited” she recalls. “Coming from a very dysfunctional, abusive family background and then being preyed upon by predators in the community I was in.”

She says the penalties for “human trafficking” did not dissuade anyone from exploiting her and now she’s pushing a ballot measure that would dramatically increase human trafficking jail terms.

California Prop 35, “Ban on Human Trafficking and Sex Slavery,” would increase sentences from 5 years to 15 years for most convicted of human trafficking.

In addition, the ballot measure would:
• Require convicted sex traffickers to register as sex offenders.
• Require all registered sex offenders to disclose their Internet accounts.
• Require criminal fines from convicted human traffickers to pay for services to help victims.
• Mandate law enforcement training on human trafficking.

Defense attorneys across the country are skeptical, calling the new penalties “draconian.”

“It's going much further than it needs to,” says Randy Zelin, a former defense attorney from New York. “Much further than it should.”

“People who would otherwise be engaged in garden-variety prostitution, who would never, ever see the inside of a jail, are looking at insane amounts of time in jail.”

Zelin predicts California’s criminal justice system is going to be “clogged” with human trafficking defendants who will have no choice but to fight the long penalties. He says that will eventually cost the taxpayers a lot of money.

“As a defendant, I have nothing to lose,” says Zelin. “I am going on trial. Who's going to foot the bill for that?”

It’s not something Chris Kelly is concerned about.

“I think people who are engaged in the exploitation of women and children online should be serving long jail sentences,” he says.

Kelly is the former Privacy Chief at Facebook, and spent more than $1.5 million of his own money to get Prop 35 on the November ballot.

“I'm really happy,” he says, “to use some of the good fortune California has brought to me to help us build a safer Internet for Californians and people nationally.”

“It's important to take a stand against sex trafficking on the Internet and the offline world.”

Kelly says there are holes in the system that often allow human traffickers to escape without punishment.

“We are not going after the pimps as effectively as we need to,” he says, “and that's what prop 35 will do.”

Zelin says that’s exactly the problem with Prop 35. He says they are simply re-labeling a crime that’s existed since the dawn of time.

“You do run the risk of taking ordinary prostitution and morphing it into something so horrific, like human trafficking,” he says. “You're really painting with too broad of a stroke.”

Albright-Byrd says that’s OK with her.

“We need this,” she says, “so what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else.”