ARLINGTON, VA -- If a person is arrested for prostitution, or drugs, or loitering, those criminal convictions can have a serious impact on their future.
Now, if that person was 13 years old when these arrests happened, and was being coerced by a trafficker, are they a criminal or a victim? Should they those convictions be erased? Lots of states say they should, but it all depends on where you live.
Barbara Amaya, of Arlington, Va. said she's seen hell and lived to write about it. In her book, "Nobody's Girl," Amaya shares how she was sexually abused as a child, trafficked at 13, and sold for sex for a decade on the streets of NYC.
At one point, she was addicted to heroin, and was arrested. This was basically Amaya's life on repeat for 10 years. When she got free, her past wouldn’t let go.Ironically, it was a traffic stop years later that started the life she has now.
"I got pulled over right here on Meade Street. He asks me for my identification which I give to him," said Amaya. "He goes back to his car and he says we just don't know who you are because all this information is coming up with different names and we don't know who you are."
That night, Amaya told her story of being sold for sex and being arrested, for the first time, to an Arlington County judge.
"So I'm telling this long story…I ran away, I was a prostitute in NYC, I was addicted to heroin, I used all these different names, I don't know what's wrong, and they're just sitting there just staring at me, with their mouths hanging open, and they just let me go," she said.
It wasn’t until she got a lawyer that Amaya realized how lucky she was that night.
"They found out when they started searching everything that I had five warrants, warrants for my arrest in NYC," she said. "I had no clue, I could have driven there, been pulled over for a minor traffic infraction and been taken to jail."
Plus, having convictions on your record can keep you from getting a job, and a place to live. Amaya had been arrested 11 times in NYC as a teen for loitering for the purposes of prostitution; a life and a path she was too young to choose.
In 2010, New York became the first state to offer some sort of vacatur of convictions for crimes a person was forced to commit. In a vacatur, essentially, the court said you never should have been arrested, and the conviction disappears. Maryland was the second state. Now, most states offer it in some form. DC is strongly considering it. Virginia isn’t.
Jessica Emerson is the Director of the Human Trafficking Project for the University of Baltimore. She helps hundreds of sex trafficking survivors a year in Maryland by walking with them down the long path towards vacating their convictions.
"When someone’s humanity is restored, I think a little piece of ours is as well," she said.
None of this is easy. There’s a lot to prove. Survivors are asked to relive the worst atrocity that’s ever happened to them.
"The first part is explain the vulnerability, the 2nd part is to explain how the person was recruited by a trafficker and what methods were used to control that person," Emerson said. "And then, part three is really moving into where is this person now. What have they accomplished, what do they want to accomplish, what have they failed to accomplish because they have a criminal record."
Amaya started down her path in 2012.
"That day, I'll never forget that day," Amaya said. "See it didn't matter about bank loans, and housing, but what mattered most, it was the stigma of being called a criminal because I wasn't a criminal."
Emerson said it’s more than having a clean record, it’s offering survivors a clean start.
"It's not just the concrete piece, it's also the emotional piece. It's knowing that every single time somebody runs your background, they're going to look at you and judge you all over again, or that I'm gonna have to have those memories all over again," Emerson said. "Or maybe I’m so embarrassed about what's on my record that I won't even go and try to get a job where I know I need a background check and that limits me now to jobs that are low paying, that are unsafe, perhaps leads you back into sex work or the underground economy."
So why doesn’t every state vacate these convictions? Amaya speaks across the country about the need for vacatur laws.
DC Councilmember Charles Allen introduced a bill before the summer break. And just last week, the Committee on the Judiciary voted in support of the Trafficking Survivors Relief Amendment Act of 2019, which includes the vacatur statute. The full council is expected to vote on it within two weeks.
"I think there's actually a lot of support on the council," said Allen. "I think this matches our values here in DC and I think that we're gonna be able to pass this later this year."
In Virginia, where Amaya is from, there’s no new vacatur legislation being introduced.
Emerson said in Maryland, there’s a catch. The state can only vacate prostitution convictions, not convictions for related crimes like assault or drugs, and Emerson said often these go hand in hand.
"If we say that we want to give a voice to these survivors, then listen to these survivor’s voices, and pass changes to this law that will allow advocates like myself to help these individuals move on with their lives so they can become productive members of the state of Maryland," said Emerson.