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In California, effective January 1, a new law will designate the human trafficking of a minor for commercial sexual exploitation as a “serious felony,” intensifying penalties and reflecting a culmination of legislative efforts amid controversy. This move comes within six months of heated debates in the Capitol surrounding the bill.

Under the existing law, trafficking a minor for commercial sex carries a maximum prison sentence of 12 years. However, if the crime involves force, fear, fraud, coercion, violence, duress, menace, or threat of unlawful injury to the victim or another person, the sentence can range from 15 years to life. In cases where the trafficker inflicts great bodily harm on the victim, a judge may add up to 10 years to the prison term.

The newly enacted law increases the prison terms for individuals convicted of commercial child sex trafficking, potentially leading to life sentences. Notably, this reclassification makes such convictions a serious offense under California’s three-strikes law.

Lawmakers from both political parties had previously attempted multiple times to reclassify child sex trafficking as a serious felony but faced repeated setbacks in 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2017, and three instances in 2021.

The recent legislative effort, spearheaded by Sen. Shannon Grove, a Republican from Bakersfield, initially faced resistance in an Assembly committee in July. However, the bill gained renewed attention after its failure, triggering a three-day social media storm. A Democratic legislator who initially opposed the bill reported receiving death threats, and accusations were exchanged, with one of the bill’s Republican supporters accusing opponents of supporting pedophilia.

Expressing dismay at the committee vote, Governor Gavin Newsom and Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, a Democrat from Salinas, actively worked to revive the bill. After a rehearing in the Assembly Public Safety Committee, the legislation successfully passed.

In September, Governor Newsom signed the law, emphasizing the seriousness of human trafficking and California’s commitment to protecting children. He commended the bipartisan effort led by Sen. Grove, Speaker Rivas, and Senate President Pro Tem Atkins in enhancing community and child safety.

Opponents of the bill, initially critical in committee, argued that it would disproportionately target low-level traffickers who might themselves be victims of trafficking. They also contended that research suggests longer sentences have limited impact on crime deterrence and could unfairly affect people of color with the harshest penalties.

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