Partial Freedom

Supporters of an initial bill to help trafficking victims say the end result continues to punish victims

From the fragile age of 16 until her early 20s, Beth Jacobs didn't live, she survived.

After a few sips from a drugged up beverage, she was kidnapped and forced into prostitution thereafter. Her pimps demanded a few hundred dollars daily, with nothing but a handful of quarters for her possession.

She escaped at 22, but the freedom was relative. The trauma and complete destruction of her self-esteem were hard chains to shake off. Over the years, Jacobs found that the most successful therapy for her soul was to help other victims get back into the light. That's been her life since.

In present days, although the 51-year-old has a bachelor's degree in social work and has collaborated with agencies like the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in human trafficking operations, Jacobs cannot get a job in the state of Arizona.

During those six years in the cycle of sex slavery, she accumulated 23 criminal charges in various states—only a handful of those were actual convictions, she says.

After she relocated here from Minnesota, where her record wasn't an issue for employment, Jacobs landed a job as a sex crime investigator with the state in 2011. About a month into it, her fingerprints came through, and Jacobs was fired.

Per Arizona law, she has to confess her criminal past to future employers for the next 99 years.

"I was devastated because I have worked most my life," Jacobs says. (For lack of any Tucson support groups for victims of sex trafficking, she founded Willows Way.) "I am living in an apartment that is not in my name, I can be evicted any day. They wouldn't let me put my name on the lease because they won't accept my charges ... I've been functional. When I was 22, I went to school ... it took me a while ... I had kids, I have been functional before."

City Councilman Steve Kozachik has been one of Jacobs' allies in trying to rid trafficking victims from any obstacle crippling plans to start fresh. (In 2013, Kozachik helped start a group Jacobs is also involved with—Responsible Alternatives to Incarceration for the Sexually Exploited, which hopes to get sex trafficking victims off the streets and into a recovery path that doesn't forcibly involve jail time.)

This legislative session, Kozachik helped Jacobs get a human trafficking bill, HB 2553, into the state Capitol. They approached state Rep. Victoria Steele, a Tucson Democrat, with an idea Jacobs had drafted with some local attorneys: vacate any prostitution or other nondangerous offenses committed as a result of trafficking from victims' records.

What could have been a revolutionizing bill made it to Gov. Doug Ducey's desk with unanimous, bipartisan support, but with too many changes that corrupted the initial idea.

Republican state Rep. Edwin Farnsworth, with the help of Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery's Office, suggested amendments to the bill, saying it would otherwise not be assigned to a committee and get a hearing.

Now, the law would only affect prostitution convictions, not any other crimes that stem from being trafficked. Also, the option to vacate only applies to charges that happened before July 2014, and the victims have to present "clear and convincing evidence" for the court to make a decision, which means "you better have a damn good lawyer," Kozachik says.

"They made an insult out of a bill that was supposed to help people, there was nothing ideological about that," he says, reinforcing his disappointment has nothing to do with the friendship he has with Steele. "It still criminalizes the victims going forward. Why would you set a retroactive date? How can you possibly limit it to prostitution? It is not a win. This does nothing for tomorrow. If somebody is involved today, it does nothing."

He says the modifications were intentionally meant to screw up the legislation, and both Kozachik and Jacobs don't have the slightest idea why these arose as a condition for the bill to survive.

"I am still learning about how all of this works, but I was amazed that one man, two men ... could change (the bill) this much, and one of them isn't even a legislator," Jacobs says. "I went and testified in the Judiciary Committee, and then I was told 'don't worry, we can change it when it gets to the Senate side.' When it went over to the Senate side, they said 'we can't change this here, we have to leave it how it is.'"

Steele understands the outcome was disappointing to many, but she says it still was a huge step forward that raised a lot of awareness in the state.

"We moved the needle a little bit more," says Steele, who also authored a resolution that declared Arizona a state with zero tolerance for human trafficking. "Instead of getting nothing, we ended up getting a bill that does make a difference."

Since the beginning, she told all stakeholders that a bill introduced in the Legislature very rarely, if ever, comes out looking the same. Steele says she plans to reintroduce the issue next session, hoping to fix what the amendments changed. After all, the support is already there, she says.

Kozachik thinks it is naïve to expect the state Legislature will move another finger.

"Guys like Farnsworth will say, 'Why would we bring it up again, we already took care of it,'" he says. Kozachik doesn't plan to attend the bill's signing ceremony in upcoming months.

Jacobs wants to meet with Montgomery's legislative liaison to better understand the amendments they proposed and ask if they could reconsider.

"It will help anybody who has been arrested, women and men like me that have this stigma attached to them forever, who can't continue their lives and it is not right," she says.