In the last two years, Los Angeles County supervisors have taken important steps forward in serving two particular populations.
One is former inmates. The supervisors are providing them meaningful opportunities to reenter society successfully after jail or prison, with a shot at housing, healthcare, medical and mental health treatment, employment and other services intended to keep them from living on the street or falling back into the cycle of offending and imprisonment.
The county’s reentry programs are very much works in progress, but they have begun to move from the drawing board to reality. In so doing, they provide hope to those in need, encouragement to nonprofits that have done this work for decades with little support or acknowledgment, and a model for other local governments that are likewise trying to smooth the path for former offenders’ safe and successful return to society.
The second is minors caught up in sex work. Girls and boys under 18 who sell themselves for sex have for too long been treated as criminals — arrested and punished the same as if they were adults — while those who traffic them too often escape justice altogether. Sheriff Jim McDonnell and the Board of Supervisors, led by Don Knabe, have embraced a movement that treats juveniles in the sex trade as trafficking victims rather than criminal prostitutes, while focusing enforcement efforts on those who profit from the heartless abuse of children.
On Tuesday, those two laudable county efforts came together. Unfortunately, they did so in a manner so ill-considered that it takes the county a lamentable step backward.
The Board of Supervisors unanimously banned anyone convicted of a human trafficking offense from ever getting a county job or contract.
Without stopping to think, that may come off as a reasonable step. After all, human trafficking — which includes commercial sexual exploitation of minors, but also indentured servitude in other industries — can be an especially vile crime. It can be a form of slavery that manipulates its victims and preys on their particular vulnerabilities. Perpetrators should be stopped, prosecuted and punished.
And then what?
The question of whether a particular former offender has rejected his or her criminal past must be answered person-by-person, not with a blanket employment and contracting ban on an entire category of crime. That is the whole point of the reentry movement that the supervisors otherwise have embraced. It is the whole point of California’s ban-the-box law, which prohibits public employers like Los Angeles County from asking about convictions in the first stage of hiring, and thereby automatically rejecting all job applications from former offenders right off the bat, without ever considering their qualifications or the time that has passed since their crimes.
It is noteworthy that the ordinance the supervisors adopted on Tuesday does not single out child sex traffickers, but takes in anyone convicted of any of the myriad crimes that fit under the expanding umbrella of human trafficking. It is also noteworthy that even as the county takes this ill-advised action against human traffickers, it is still permissible for pedophiles, murderers, kidnappers and other former inmates to try to land jobs with the county. Where’s the logic in that?
A decade ago, drug crimes were the bad flavor of the moment. Politicians showcased their toughness by continuing the punishment even after prison. They passed laws that left former inmates with few options but to return to their unlawful ways. They denied food stamps, housing assistance, public employment — anything to demonstrate their utter rejection of former drug offenders. In the process, people of color were disproportionately locked up, increasing their desperation — and the likelihood that they would commit more crimes — after their release.
Interminable punishment for drug crimes has fallen out of fashion over the last several years, as lawmakers have recognized the wisdom of reducing sentences and helping former inmates get back on their feet. But society seems to have some political need to designate and permanently vilify a population of outcasts and to heap on them our collective fear, anger and hatred. Human trafficking should be prevented and punished — but it should not be scapegoated. It should not become the new war on drugs.
When the county denies jobs or contracts to any class of offender, it provides a model and sends a message to other prospective employers, public and private. The message the supervisors sent Tuesday is the wrong one. It repeats, rather than corrects, the criminal justice mistakes of the past.