By Shamere McKenzie, CEO of the Sun Gate Foundation and Just Exits Advisory Councilmember

I want us all to think about our younger selves.

An adaptation of testimony given at a Hearing on “Oversight of Federal Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking”, U.S. House of Representatives, House Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security

As children we all imagined what our lives would be like as adults. My dream was to be an attorney, but now as an adult my dream is to run for office. As a child, I never imagined being robbed of the first pillar of freedom — my autonomy — which violates my basic human rights under the 13th Amendment. I never imagined being held in bondage in the land of the free, suffering both mental and physical torture. I never imagined being forced into commercial sexual exploitation by a man who used physical violence and psychological coercion to maintain control and power over me for his own profit. I never imagined being brutally traumatized to the point where I developed compliant behavior simply to survive.

There are severe consequences for not carrying out a trafficker’s demands, which could even lead to death. I know this all too well. When I refused my trafficker’s orders to drive, he asked me to choose between death and driving. At that point I had lost all hope in life and begged for death in order to end my misery. I chose death. On one occasion, my trafficker responded by placing a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger. There are many other attempts where I begged death to take me, including unsuccessful suicide attempts. In my opinion, death was my escape from the grips of a man who saw me not as a human being but as a product to be sold for his own profit. But death refused me.

My trafficker created a scheme to ensure the legal system saw me not as a victim, but as a criminal for the crimes he forced me to commit.

I took a plea to Conspiracy of the Mann Act, or as some may know it, the White Slave Traffic Act. This plea required me to register as a sex offender, barred me from certain scholarships and forms of employment, and most importantly, impacted my healing.

For the last 13 years, I have dedicated my life to ending human trafficking. I have worked in several sectors of the anti-trafficking movement, where I have moved from victim, to survivor, to now the CEO of the Sun Gate Foundation and the first appointed Anti-Trafficking Ambassador to Jamaica.

I also serve as Training Manager for the National Human Trafficking Hotline at Polaris. Based on the calls that come into the hotline, we know that survivors who are no longer actively being trafficked are still negatively impacted by the trauma they have survived. Survivors who have been criminalized face significant barriers as we try to reintegrate into society.

I am a member of the Just Exits Advisory Council along with seven other amazing survivor leaders who have not only lived experience, but also years of professional experience training and providing technical assistance. As part of the Just Exits Initiative, I have provided proactive and responsive state-specific, discipline-specific, and multi-disciplinary training and technical assistance on a variety of advanced human trafficking topics, including assessing culpability and combatting common defenses using expert witnesses.

The criminalization of victims is one of the most pressing issues that must be addressed as it relates to human trafficking. Criminal record relief is often inaccessible to survivors because the laws are insufficient and overly burdensome, and they do not reflect the reality and pervasiveness of forced criminality within all forms of human trafficking. Over 43 states have implemented some form of criminal relief, but according to Polaris’ State Report Cards, many of these laws don’t truly help survivors. And there currently is no federal statute providing criminal record relief to criminalized victims of human trafficking. Victims continue to be charged as perpetrators or co-conspirators alongside or in lieu of their trafficker. Traffickers have gone as far as to write books teaching others how to evade criminal charges. One wrote: “your hands are never soiled by mistakes or nasty deeds. Maintain such a spotless appearance by using others as scapegoats and cat’s-paws to disguise your involvement.”

Of 130 trafficking survivors responding to a National Survivor Network survey in 2016, 91% reported they had been arrested. Forty-two percent reported that they were arrested as minors, and over 40 percent reported being arrested nine times or more. Survivors are regularly criminalized for activity related to their victimization. The study explicitly informs us that victims of trafficking are not only forced to commit acts of prostitution, but they are also forced to commit other criminal acts and to be complicit in trafficking operations.

For decades, government actors have acted upon the threats traffickers utilize to keep us in the Life. They have arrested us, assaulted us, raped us, deported us, disbelieved us, and have taken our children away. For the most part, our traffickers have escaped accountability.

Because of this historical—and sometimes current—relationship with law enforcement and other government actors, victims and survivors have limited faith in the criminal justice system and other systems.

Over the last 22 years since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the anti-trafficking field has slowly come to recognize that criminalizing trafficking victims does not help them in any way. Yet criminalization persists. I strongly believe that we have enough evidence to stop criminalizing victims. Each day we delay, we uphold the lies constantly told to victims by traffickers — that we won’t be believed, that we’ll be punished. Each day we delay is another day victims are pushed further into the dark world of human trafficking. My fellow Just Exits Advisory Councilmember Joy Friedman, posed the question, “When do victims of trafficking stop paying the price?” The answer must be NOW.