The Fight for Expungement: Part 1

Latasha Drax has over 15 years in education as a high school English teacher, literacy coach and Adult English as Second Language instructor. She has taught in Florida, New York, Virginia and overseas in China. In 2014, she coordinated a Sex Trafficking Awareness Walk in Lakeland, Florida where she also served on a Human Trafficking Task Force. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Government with a concentration in Law and Public Policy.

As the state of Virginia approaches the 2021 General Assembly, passing legislation to vacate and expunge the criminal records of victims of human trafficking must be a priority. It is a first and necessary step towards ensuring survivors of human trafficking are not continuously traumatized by (1) the suffering they endured as victims, (2) the trauma experienced trying to recover from their ordeal, and (3) the added trauma caused by a criminal justice system that holds them accountable for crimes committed while being trafficked.

 In Virginia, survivors of human trafficking are often treated as criminals.  With a history of documented convictions, survivors struggle to gain treatment, education, employment and housing keeping them vulnerable to continued exploitation. Such hardships contribute to the existing trauma of survivors exacerbating the anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and severe depression caused by their trafficker. The reality is survivors of human trafficking are forced to commit crimes. Threats of arrest or incarceration are one of many tactics traffickers use to control and manipulate their victims. Thus, ultimate fear cripples and keeps victims in the grip and cycle of human trafficking.

Vacatur and expungement are useful legal strategies that return dignity and humanity to victims who have survived trafficking. However, there are many myths surrounding expungement laws. Therefore, it is imperative that those myths are debunked through education, awareness and advocacy. 

●        Expungement is the complete destruction or redaction of criminal records of convictions committed by human trafficking victims while being trafficked;

●       Vacatur is when the court overturns a conviction and dismisses the underlying charge.

 The Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking (VCAHT) advocates for policies and legislation that will treat survivors of human trafficking as victims instead of criminals. One of VCAHT’s initiatives is the support of a bill, similar to HB 1033, that was introduced during the 2020 General Session ,which allows the human trafficking victims’ criminal record to be expunged and their  convictions to be vacated.

Human trafficking is a stain on civil society. Traffickers prey on the vulnerable and then use psychological and physical tactics to dehumanize and enslave their unsuspecting victims and force them to commit crimes under extreme duress and fear. Without question, human trafficking is an egregious crime against humanity, and those who are lucky to escape the mental, sexual and physical abuse endured at the hands of the trafficker deserve a second chance at a normal life. Therefore, passing expungement and vacatur laws in the State of Virginia is a legal step in the right direction.

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