By ADAM BEAM
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Republicans had a rare chance to celebrate Thursday after Democrats in the state Legislature capitulated on one of the GOP’s top priorities: A bill to increase penalties for child traffickers.
If’s not often that Republicans get to set the agenda in Sacramento, where they hold less than a quarter of seats in the state Legislature and haven’t had a statewide officeholder in more than a dozen years. But the bill proved to be a winning topic among the public and even Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who took the unusual step of publicly supporting the proposal this week.
The bill by Republican state Sen. Shannon Grove would add child trafficking to a list of serious felonies in California. Anyone convicted of at least three serious felonies faces a prison sentence of between 25 years to life in prison under the state’s three strikes law.
The Democrats who control the Assembly Public Safety Committee decided not to advance the bill earlier this week. They opposed the bill in part because they oppose longer prison sentences, which they do not see as an effective deterrent of crime. They also worried the bill could inadvertently punish child trafficking victims with lengthy prison sentences.
It looked like the bill might not pass this year, until Wednesday when Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom intervened and Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas also publicly pledged to “get it right.”
Thursday, lawmakers allowed the Public Safety Committee to meet again. In a brief meeting, four Democrats — including chair Reggie Jones-Sawyer — joined Republicans to advance the bill out of the committee ahead of a legislative deadline.
The bill now must be vetted by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where Jones-Sawyer said he will ask for amendments to make sure victims of child trafficking are not penalized and that the legislation doesn’t disproportionately affect people of color.
“We shouldn’t be playing politics. We should be coming together — together — to move this forward so that everybody is safe,” Jones-Sawyer told reporters after the hearing. “I’m going to make a commitment to do everything in my power to get it on the governor’s desk so he can sign it.”
The issue exposed a rift among Democrats over the best way to punish and prevent crime, with some supporting increased penalties while others favor more treatment options and alternative sentences.
It also presented a first test for Rivas, who just took over as Assembly speaker at the end of June. Rivas replaced Anthony Rendon, one of the longest serving speakers in state history who was famous for his hands-off approach, often deferring to committee chairs to decide the fate of bills.
It’s not clear if Rivas ordered Jones-Sawyer to hold a second hearing and pass the bill. But during an appearance at the Sacramento Press Club on Wednesday, Rivas would not say whether he would allow Jones-Sawyer to stay as chair of the committee. Jones-Sawyer is termed out of office at the end of 2024.
Jones-Sawyer told reporters on Thursday he held Thursday’s hearing to advance the bill after meeting privately with Grove the day before — a meeting he said “answered some of my questions.”
Republicans cheered the bill’s revival, with Grove calling it “a day for Californians to celebrate.” But she said she would not change the bill, especially since Newsom indicated his support for it and the state Senate already voted unanimously to pass it.
“There’s no reason to take amendments. It’s a very narrowly tailored bill addressing human trafficking of a minor child — selling a child for sex.” Grove said. “It needs to be passed as is.”
Grove’s refusal to take amendments could be trouble for the bill in the Assembly. Assembly Majority Leader Isaac Bryan, a Democrat from Los Angeles who is a member of the Public Safety Committee, did not vote for the bill on Thursday. He later posted a message on his Twitter account saying “the people most vulnerable to being charged with trafficking are the victims of trafficking themselves.”
Grove said she had already made changes to the bill to address those concerns.
“We don’t want anyone who’s a victim of a violent crime like human trafficking to be charged or put in prison for that,” she said. “That is not my intent. that is not what the bill says.”
Associated Press reporter Trân Nguyễn contributed to this report.