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A law that classifies human trafficking of a minor for the purposes of a commercial sex act as a “serious felony” took effect Jan. 1, less than six months after debate around the bill roiled the Capitol. 

Under current law, human trafficking of a minor for purposes of commercial sex incurs a sentence of up to 12 years in prison. If the crime involves force, fear, fraud, deceit, coercion, violence, duress, menace, or threat of unlawful injury to the victim or to another person, the sentence is 15 years to life. If the person is convicted of inflicting great bodily harm on the victim while trafficking them, a judge can add up to 10 years to a prison sentence.

Under the new law, people convicted of commercial child sex trafficking would face longer prison terms and potential life sentences.

Lawmakers from both parties had made numerous previous attempts to reclassify the crime as a serious felony, which makes a conviction of the crime a strike under California’s three-strikes law. In 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2017 and three times in 2021, legislators tried and failed to reclassify child sex trafficking as a serious felony. 

In July, the latest legislative effort from Sen. Shannon Grove, a Bakersfield Republican, seemed destined for the same fate in an Assembly committee. 

But after the bill failed in committee, debate spilled onto social media and a three-day maelstrom ensued. A Democratic legislator who originally voted against the bill reported getting death threats. One of the bill’s Republican supporters in the Legislature accused its opponents of supporting pedophilia. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom, at a press conference, expressed dismay at the committee vote. Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, a Salinas Democrat, also said he was “very much engaged” in trying to move the bill forward.

Within two days, the bill was back for a rehearing in the Assembly Public Safety Committee, and this time it passed.

“Human trafficking is a sick crime,” Newsom said in a written statement when he signed the law in September. “With this new law, California is going further to protect kids. I’m grateful for the leadership of Sen. Grove, Speaker Rivas, and (Senate president) Pro Tem Atkins in spearheading this bipartisan effort to make our communities and children safer.”

Those who originally opposed the bill at the committee said it would overwhelmingly target low-level traffickers who may be trafficking victims themselves. 

They also argued that research shows longer sentences have very little effect on crime deterrence, and the harshest penalties would be disproportionately levied on people of color.

Copyright © 2023 Bay City News, Inc. This story first appeared in CalMatters at calmatters.org/justice/2023/12/fentanyl-new-california-laws-2024/

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