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Survivors of intercourse trafficking usually are not criminals

Last February, the newspaper rightly praised Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to create a path of mercy for trafficking and domestic violence survivors whose crimes resulted from their victimization. With this campaign, Abbott has enabled survivors to heal from their trauma without the burden of conviction preventing them from accessing safe housing, securing employment, supporting their children and building new lives. We are proud of Texas for paving a way forward for survivors.

Together, under the leadership of the Lone Star Justice Alliance and in partnership with more than 30 other organizations, we launched the Survivors’ Project to provide free legal services to survivors who wish to benefit from this new process. Since then, the project has trained more than 200 lawyers, produced educational and advocacy materials, established a survivor support network, and connected women to volunteer legal services.

As professionals working directly with trafficking survivors, we are excited about the progress. Two of us know firsthand the importance of grace. Robbie Hamilton and Bekah Charleston were pardoned by Abbott and (then) President Donald Trump. These pardons changed our lives; Now nothing can stop us from supporting other survivors like us.

When, like so many human trafficking victims, you live under the burden of a criminal record, you are literally being excluded from society. Living without hope is one of the worst experiences anyone can have. Grace gives hope to survivors that they can be saved.

Our work with the Survivors’ Project has also reinforced our commitment to preventing the future criminalization of survivors. While a pardon can help ease the pain of conviction, it comes after so much preventable harm has already been done. Every effort must be made to avoid unnecessary and unjust beliefs.

We can begin by carefully investigating the criminal cases of all children who committed an outcry of abuse. We are deeply concerned about reports that a young teenage girl in North Texas, Zephi Trevino, is facing transfer to the adult criminal justice system and capital murder charge after her suspected sex trafficker killed a man who intended to turn Zephi, a 16- year old, to buy -old child, for sex. We are concerned that her situation as a potential sex trafficking victim has not been fully investigated.

We fervently hope that victims of human trafficking are never wrongly punished for the circumstances they are forced to do. Our youngest and most vulnerable populations should be treated with the utmost consideration by our justice system, and any girl arrested at the age of 16 should be brought to justice as a minor.

We challenge the Dallas community to lead our state and country by developing policies and procedures to ensure that survivors of human trafficking and violence are identified, diverted from the criminal justice system, and assisted in their recovery.

We urge reform efforts to focus on the voices of survivors and rely on the expertise of the Survivors Project partner organizations to ensure that evidence-based practices guide implementation efforts. Together, as a community, we can create a stronger judicial system that promotes salvation, restoration, and transformation.

Bekah Charleston is the director of strategic initiatives at The Jensen Project.

Robbie Hamilton is a youth mentor at New Friends New Life.

Bianca Jackson is the executive director of New Friends New Life.

Janet Jensen is the founder and CEO of the Jensen Project.

Natalie Nanasi is a professor of law at Southern Methodist University and director of the Legal Center for Crime Victims against Women of Judge Elmo B. Hunter.

Jessica Brazeal is the Chief Program Officer at New Friends New Life.

You wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

For more information about the Survivors’ Project and how to apply for pro bono legal services or donate legal services, please visit lonestarjusticealliance.org/survivors-project.html.

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