Justice Department Urged to Reinstate Legal Funding for Human Trafficking Victims

(CN) – A host of legal advocacy organizations, human trafficking survivors, attorneys and prosecutors called on the Justice Department Wednesday to reinstate funding for post-conviction relief to expunge trafficking survivors’ criminal records.

Nearly 300 anti-trafficking organizations and individuals, along with 126 human trafficking survivors, nine prosecutors’ offices  and the Association of Pro Bono Counsel submitted letters to the Office for Victims of Crime asking it to reinstate federal funds for post-conviction legal services for human trafficking victims hoping to clean up their criminal records.

Executive Director of Freedom Network USA Jean Bruggeman, who organized the signature campaign, said advocates are “hopeful” the Office for Victims of Crimes will reinstate funding for expungement relief after seeing “widespread support” across the justice system.

“It’s a very diverse group united in opposition to this policy change. I’m hopeful that will have an impact and that OVC will reconsider their position,” Bruggeman said.

Even though Congress significantly boosted funding to $77 million – a $32 million increase – for human trafficking victims this year, the Justice Department has restricted funding to exclude post-conviction legal services for expunging and vacating criminal convictions human trafficking survivors racked up as a result of being trafficked.

Following pushback from human trafficking advocates, the Office for Victims of Crime last week revised its grant funding applications for specialized and comprehensive services to note legal service providers can “counsel” clients about expungement and vacatur, but still cannot use federal funds to provide direct legal representation.

The decision comes three years after the Office for Victims of Crime funded the Survivor Reentry Project through the American Bar Association to provide specific federal funding to train attorneys to provide post-conviction legal services to trafficking survivors.

The Office for Victims of Crime continues to fund the Survivor Reentry Project, even though lawyers cannot use federal dollars to represent their clients in vacating and expunging criminal convictions.

Those who work with human trafficking survivors say this restriction is a huge obstacle because expungement of criminal convictions is one of the most vital legal services survivors need to lead independent, crime-free lives.

A survey by the National Survivor Network found over 90 percent of human trafficking survivors had been arrested, with over half of respondents being arrested more than nine times.

Trafficking survivors with criminal records are denied housing, jobs and educational opportunities, which hinders them from building new lives and makes them vulnerable to being trafficked again.

A letter from nine prosecutors’ offices across the country – including San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephen who was elected Tuesday night – called for restored Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act funding, calling post-conviction work a “multi-disciplinary collaboration between law enforcement, prosecuting agencies, lawmakers, legal and social service providers, the private bar and survivor leaders.”

The prosecutors pointed out when survivors have legal representation in their post-conviction petitions “their motions are well-prepared and documented,” allowing prosecutors to “asses the viability of their claims much easier.”

“Alone it is difficult, if not impossible, for victims to collect the necessary documentation of the criminal records, the context of the arrest and evidence of their victimization,” the prosecutors wrote, arguing that pro se, or self-represented, petitions would bog down judicial resources.

Applications for federal funding for trafficking victim services are due June 25.

A spokesperson with the Office for Victims of Crimes did not return a request for comment.

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