Supporting Criminalized Human Trafficking Survivors Through Policy Change

Free to Thrive
9 min readOct 19, 2021


TRIGGER WARNING — This article includes references to physical and sexual violence experienced by a human trafficking survivor.

Alexis Martin’s Story

Alexis Martin is a trafficking survivor who has lived through unimaginable trauma. Before the age of 15, she lived through bouts of homelessness, parents who were addicts, and was placed in the foster care system while her mother was incarcerated. She was sexually abused starting when she was just 10 years old, and she suffered a miscarriage at 12 years old from a pregnancy by someone that was 4 years her senior. After the miscarriage, she attempted suicide.

By the time she met her friend’s father, Angelo Kerney, she was extremely vulnerable to exploitation due to all of her trauma and neglect. Kerney groomed her with fancy dinners, flattery, and financial support. Alexis thought that this was love despite the fact that he beat, raped and sold her to other men. Kerney wanted her to quit school to make money for him. In response, she tried to leave him. To stop her, he beat her severely and locked her in a basement without food or water for 2 days. She tried to turn herself in at her probation check-in, but they let her go.

Deshaun Spear was someone she thought would finally help her get away from Kerney for good. They planned to rob Kerney and to escape with Martin’s sister. Martin was just 15 at the time.

Figure 1: “But as her case moved through the criminal justice system, little attention was paid to how the 15-year-old girl knew the 36-year-old man in the first place. Or what witnesses said he was doing to her. Or why she called him ‘Dad.’” Alexis Martin’s full story here:

The robbery did not go as planned and Kerney was murdered in his home. Despite not having been in the room at the time of the murder, Martin was charged with murder as an adult. At the time of her interrogation, Sgt. Scott Lietke and Detective John Ross convinced her to proceed without a lawyer, despite her asking for one. When she had asked if her mom was coming, Lietke said “No”.

During this interview, Martin disclosed that Kerney was her pimp. Ohio’s safe harbor law went into effect 17 months earlier, but her lawyer did not know that he could request safe harbor protections. Safe harbor laws protect minors who are being trafficked from being prosecuted for certain crimes. Law enforcement did not ask her why she planned the robbery and her lawyer did not call wittnesses that would testify on her behalf; Martin plead guilty to murder and felonius assault. Judge Linda Teodosio had decided that she would be tried as an adult. Judge Tom Parker said that she was “working” for Kerney’s “escort business” and sentenced her to 21 years to life. Despite being released at 22 years old, she continues to live with the consequences as an adult.

Breaking the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline through Policy Change Helps Survivors in Masses

The experiences of young children like Martin are often due to law enforcement and the criminal justice system adultifying and sexualizing children at a young age, which results in their criminalization. Judge Parker even said about Martin that “It is almost beyond comprehension to think that a fifteen year old child would be involved in that kind of work.” This is often because standard law enforcement training focuses on identifying crime, rather than comprehensive training that covers scenarios other than crime. A way to stop this systemic injustice is to change the laws that enable it.

Pallavi Garg, staff attorney and criminal justice program coordinator at Free to Thrive, is passionate about anti-human trafficking policy for good reason: it is the best way to help the most survivors at once. This is because even when attorneys represent victims individually they are still bound by the law, and all too often they are restricted by laws that are not trauma-informed. According to Garg, sexualizing minorities at a young age facilitates a cycle of systemic injustice whereby children are treated as adult criminals, rather than as child victims of sexual trauma. This cycle has been coined the “Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline” because it funnels abuse victims into the adult criminal justice system without asking why they landed there.

Figure 2: Pallavi Garg, staff attorney and criminal justice program coordinator at Free to Thrive. Learn more about Pallavi here:

This abuse to prison pipeline describes the relationship between child sexual abuse and the juvenile system whereby children, especially girls of color, are streamlined into the criminal justice system. Martin’s story is only one example of how the pipeline targets young children and follows them into adulthood. Martin is not alone in her experience, many children share similar stories. Legislation is a way to help many survivors at once.

Legislation is a Systemic Solution

Legislation is a powerful tool for fighting against systemic injustices that children in marginalized communities face. Non-profit organizations like Free to Thrive specialize in holistic services that center on survivor needs. Because of Free to Thrive’s work with survivors and the legal system, the organization has unique insight into the shortcomings of criminal laws and the justice system. An essential role of the organization is to help victims overcome these barriers, according to Garg. Because of Free to Thrive’s specialized knowledge of survivor needs, pro bono attorneys are able to maximize their resources to help survivors according to their specific needs. This includes not only helping individual survivors with their legal needs, but also advocating for policies that help all survivors.

An example of Free to Thrive’s involvement in advocacy is California Assembly Bill 124 — Justice for Survivors Act (“AB 124”). Garg Represents Free to Thrive in a statewide coalition that pushes for survivor-centered policies including AB 124. Attorneys and advocates within this coalition met with legislators, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, lived-experience experts and other key stakeholders before writing the legislation. The bill addresses the parts of the criminal legal process where victims should have been identified. It will require prosecutors and judges to consider evidence of hardships such as trauma and trafficking. Creating policies that enforce proper and timely identification of victims is a sturdy foundation towards ending the systemic faults in our justice system that perpetuate the sexual abuse to prison pipeline.

Survivor centered laws are a systemic solution to a systemic problem. They force the criminal justice system to look at victims as a vulnerable population in need of help rather than as criminals. The nature of the sexual abuse to prison pipeline is that child victims are streamlined from the juvenile criminal justice system to the adult criminal justice system without evaluating how they got into the system in the first place. AB 124 interrupts this cycle by enforcing processes for victim identification and requiring that their trauma be considered in court. As a result, victims will no longer be blindly funneled into a criminal justice system that does not consider survivor trauma.

Identification of victims by attorneys, judges, healthcare professionals, and law enforcement is crucial to ending the sexual abuse to prison pipeline. Garg and her fellow survivor advocates know that there are many reasons why victims are not identified. Victims do not self-identify because of trauma bonding between themselves and their traffickers, and there is mistrust amongst victims of law enforcement and other entities of the criminal justice system. Lawyers are viewed as strangers by victims which fuels mistrust. They are left unidentified by the system because law enforcement is not adequately trained to identify victims at the time of arrest, judges do not ask the questions that they should, and because of the status of perpetrators.

Creating laws that put the responsibility of identification onto the hospitals, judges, and law enforcement that oversee victims’ cases rather than onto victims removes an unnecessary burden from them. According to Garg, the whole point of the justice system is to protect the vulnerable. It is for that reason that the institutions that survivors come into contact with during the legal process need to have the responsibility of identifying victims, and taking initiative to offer them resources rather than relying on victims and survivors to self-identify.

On October 8, 2021, California Governor signed AB 124 into law. This new law will go into effect January 1, 2022.

The Power of Policy Beyond Breaking Down the Pipeline

Pre-conviction, post-conviction, and post-sentencing legislation help victims at every step of the justice system, their power in helping survivors goes beyond breaking down the pipeline. In the 2016 National Survivor Network Members Survey, survivors shared the long term impact of having a criminal record. One survivor said:

After having “escaped” from my sex trafficker, I have still been enslaved by the charges. Unable to get employment year after year after year resulted in homelessness and suicide attempts… I felt like, here you’re free, nobody wants to know you, talk to you, help you, date you, hire you, or have you living in their home so you might as well just be dead.

Being an unidentified victim comes with devastating consequences and trauma that can seem incomprehensible to anyone who has not lived through it. The justice system has a duty to survivors to offer them protections at every step in the legal system. Legislation that works against the pipeline will also help mitigate or prevent trauma that occurs from collateral consequences and essentially prevents the full force of dual victimization.

Pre-conviction legislation works against the pipeline by requiring law enforcement and hospitals to identify victims so that they can receive help earlier in the legal process instead of arresting them and treating them as a criminal. Collateral consequences of a criminal record include housing, education, employment and/or financial assistance ramifications whereby a survivor might be denied access because of a criminal record. These consequences can be prevented or mitigated with laws that preemptively address survivors’ needs early in the criminal legal process.

Post-conviction legislation can help critical evidence regarding the victim’s trauma be considered at the time of sentencing. While this may not completely rid them of legal consequences for a crime, it can create awareness that victims are a vulnerable population in need of legal protections. Accommodations during sentencing for trafficking related crimes give the state an opportunity to offer the survivor services or resources that they might need.

Lastly, post-sentencing legislation gives survivors an opportunity for resentencing and vacatur. Garg believes that post-conviction legislation has the greatest impact against collateral consequences because their criminal record will no longer be accessible by anyone who may run a background check on their criminal history. The survivor’s statement from the NSN Survey is a testimony to the crippling effects of a criminal record and to the restorative impact of vacating their record.

Anti-trafficking legislation needs to be formulated with a survivor’s best interest at the forefront of its creation. This means not only striving to break down the pipeline but to rectify the system and prevent furthering a survivor’s trauma and revictimization by the justice system.

Figure 3: Figure 4 shows that the two largest obstacles that survivors face because of a criminal record is in housing and employment. The same study shows that over 75% of survivors have not been able to clear their records. Source: National Survivor Network Members Survey: Impact of Criminal Arrest and Detention on Survivors of Human Trafficking August 2016, full report here:

Moving Forward

Tackling systemic issues like the sexual abuse to prison pipeline requires tenacity and persistence. Luckily, there are individuals like Garg who dedicate their lives to helping and protecting survivors who have been afflicted by pipeline. The trauma and revictimization that Martin and the survivors in the NSN Survey have testified to could have largely been avoided with better anti-trafficking policies. The effort towards creating trauma informed, survivor centered legislation is in its formative years, and AB124 is a wonderful jumping point.

In the words of a Free to Thrive thriver who was able to get her record cleared, “Finally my record is who I am, not what my trafficker made me do.” Survivors should not suffer at the hands of the justice system, survivor advocates need to be using their knowledge, their influence and their resources to push for trauma informed and survivor centered policies that foster true justice.

To learn more about how Free To Thrive is working to address the legal needs of human trafficking survivors visit

About the Author: Jasmeen Kharsa is a senior at San Diego State University, majoring in psychology and an intern at Free to Thrive.