Under intense political pressure, California Democrats on Thursday reversed their dismissal two days earlier of a bill that would classify child trafficking as a serious felony.
Assembly Public Safety Committee chair Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D.), who criticized the legislation on Tuesday for its potential impact on racial minorities, this time voted to advance the bill unchanged along with three other Democrats. The two Republicans voted yes both times. None of the lawmakers spoke about why they were holding a redo vote.
The abrupt and unusual about-face came in an emergency hearing after public outcry over the panel's first vote, which saw all the Democrats abstain and thereby block the bill from moving toward a vote by the full Assembly. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D.) had also applied pressure, saying Wednesday that he was "surprised" by the decision.
The bipartisan bill, which the state Senate already passed unanimously, appears on track to become law, though changes could still be made. But there is little reason to expect California Democrats, and the Public Safety Committee in particular, will be deterred from longstanding efforts to ease sentencing and empty prisons in the name of racial equity—even as violent crime in California continues to rise.
After Thursday’s vote, Jones-Sawyer tweeted that the bill needs to be "fixed." He claimed without evidence that the measure—which would expand California’s Three-Strikes law to include trafficking of a minor—"could charge trafficking victims and children with a felony."
"We are going to improve this bill and provide justice for victims," he said.
"This is just the latest of a whole series of actions taken by the Public Safety Committee over the years to essentially defend criminals over victims," the Assembly’s Republican leader James Gallagher said in an interview. "I’m glad it’s finally getting the focus and attention that it has deserved for quite some time, where common-sense measures that are just trying to get on top of accountability are killed in that committee."
During debate ahead of the first vote on the bill, Democratic members of the committee bluntly rejected the premise that justice would be served by locking up repeatedly-convicted traffickers of minors for sex and labor.
"All [longer sentences] do is increase our investments in systems of harm and subjugation at the expense of the investments that the communities needed to not have this be a problem to begin with," said Democratic majority leader and committee member Issac Bryan.
Outside the legislature, the Democrats’ logic proved unconvincing. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Emily Hoeven wrote of the vote: "The notion that it isn’t a serious crime to traffic children for sex or labor is so absurd as to be laughable if it weren’t for the gravity of the situation." California Democrats have grown so ideological, argued Hoeven, that they are making Republicans relevant again in the Democratic supermajority state legislature.
Twitter owner Elon Musk tweeted his disbelief at Tuesday's vote: "Wtf?"
Some state Democrats were defiant. The California Assembly Democrats’ Twitter account on Wednesday posted a thread defending the committee from its critics.
"Preventing a crime in the first place is our goal," the Assembly Democrats said in the now-deleted tweets, adding "the current 3 Strikes model disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous & People of Color communities, so any bill that builds on this system needs to ensure equity & that unforeseen consequences do not lead to trafficked children being punished under the law."
Sen. Mark Stern (D.), who voted for the bill in the upper chamber, in tweets on Wednesday mocked Republican critics as conspiracy theorists
But Newsom told reporters on Wednesday that he had called the bill's Republican author, Sen. Shannon Grove, to offer his support. He said that trafficking of children is something "I care deeply about." His office declined to provide further comment.
By Thursday, a number of Democratic lawmakers were heard voicing rare support for law and order.
"SB14 and the human trafficking of minors is a serious issue," Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo (D.) tweeted Thursday. "I have met unaccompanied minors who are survivors who shared with me their horrific stories. I don’t serve on Assembly Public Safety, but if I did, I would have voted yes and plan on voting yes on the Assembly floor."
Assemblywoman Liz Ortega (D.), a Public Safety Committee member, apologized on Thursday after telling human trafficking victims that she could not support the bill because "sending someone to prison for the rest of their lives is not going to fix the harm moving forward."
"On Tuesday, I made a bad decision," Ortega tweeted. "Voting against legislation targeting really bad people who traffic children was wrong. I regret doing that and I am going to help get this important legislation passed into law."
Yet Democrats’ initial opposition to cracking down on child traffickers was no anomaly.
During this legislative session, the Public Safety Committee has quashed bills that would have bolstered punishments for fentanyl dealers as the state faces an overdose crisis and tightened sentencing for gun crimes and domestic violence. California has in recent years restricted sentencing for drug- and gang-related crimes, reduced jail time for convicted felons, and sealed and wiped criminal records.