On November 17, 2021, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Survivors of Sex Trafficking Attaining Relief Together Act (START) into law. Prior to the enactment of START, survivors of human trafficking could only clear convictions for prostitution-related offenses, leaving survivors with criminal records that could bar them from employment, education, housing, and other government services. For non-citizen survivors, criminal convictions can prohibit an individual from obtaining necessary immigration documents and potentially lead to deportation.
The newly-enacted START legislation, however, now allows survivors to “clear themselves of other offenses they had been forced into committing” as a result of their exploitation. The legislation also clarifies that survivors do not need to show evidence of rehabilitation or good character to be eligible for relief under the Act. In order to qualify for post-conviction relief, a survivor defendant must have been a victim of human trafficking at the time the offense was committed and provide documentation of their status as a victim of trafficking from a federal, state, or local government organization. This legislation will have a profound impact on survivors of human trafficking in New York, as 61% of survivors struggled to keep steady employment due to their criminal records in 2016. Providing tangible solutions for survivors, this bill acknowledges that trafficking survivors are victims, not criminals.
Allowing survivors to clear the entire criminal record they have because of their exploitation is essential to rebuilding their lives after being trafficked. Most states allow some form of criminal record relief for survivors of trafficking, but many only clear prostitution or other prostitution related crimes from their records. This does not do enough for survivors convicted of other criminal offenses committed at the behest of the trafficker. Criminal records can make finding a well-paying job and housing impossible. Without housing and work, survivors can easily be driven back into exploitation where, if caught again, they face higher penal sanctions due to their criminal history. In order for survivors to restart their lives, they need to be able to have a clean slate – free from any record of their exploitation.
The CSE Institute stands with survivors of sex trafficking and commends Governor Hochul and the New York State Assembly for their work in providing equitable, full conviction relief to survivors. Pennsylvania’s trafficking conviction relief, our vacatur statute, though a good start, must recognize that survivors should not have to bear a criminal record of any kind resulting from being trafficked.