Child trafficking bill creates drama at California Legislature

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La July 14, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership, Southern California Gas Company and Earthjustice

Child trafficking bill creates drama at California Legislature

There’s policy, then there’s politics. 

That played out Thursday in some high drama at the Legislature — during its last day before a month-long summer vacation — as lawmakers resuscitated a contentious criminal justice bill.

Assembly Republicans tried to force a floor vote on the bill — which won unanimous approval in the state Senate but was in dire jeopardy in the Assembly — to make child trafficking a serious felony, leading to longer prison sentences for repeat offenders.

At one point during the five-minute debate, there was a tense exchange between Assemblymember Heath Flora, a Republican from Ripon, and new Democratic Majority Leader Isaac Bryan from Culver City. Flora urged his fellow lawmakers to choose a team — “pick pedophiles or children.” 

In response, Bryan said Flora was disparaging his fellow lawmakers, which is against the rules of the Legislature, for “personally suggesting that members of this body support human trafficking.”

In the end, the Democratic majority voted 43-17 to send the bill back to the Assembly public safety committee, which blocked the bill on Tuesday (with only the two Republicans voting “yes” and the six Democrats not voting), setting off a series of political fireworks.  

After the fiery floor debate, the committee hearing was anti-climatic, except for the applause and whoops at the end: With committee Chairperson Reggie Jones-Sawyer not allowing any discussion, the panel quickly reversed itself and voted 6-0 (with Democrats Mia Bonta of Oakland and Bryan abstaining) to move the bill on to the Assembly appropriations committee. 

Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat, ended up voting “yes” and later told reporters he would do everything in his power to get it to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. As chairperson for “quite some time,” Jones-Sawyer also said that he was used to receiving backlash, but he was particularly appalled by threats he said had been made against women on the committee.

  • Jones-Sawyer: “We could have an honest debate but my God, you should not threaten a woman because of her personal feelings…. And the kind of ‘Trumpian’ hate that was vilified on members of the Democratic Party who have done a tremendous amount of work in this space is just wrong.”

Assembly Republicans, meanwhile, gathered alongside the bill’s author, Sen. Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, to celebrate the vote and pose for Twitter photos. They announced that the bill picked up 18 new co-authors — mostly Democrats — during Thursday’s floor session.

  • GOP Assembly leader James Gallagher of Chico: “It shouldn’t be this hard to protect our kids. I think the California public is saying enough is enough. The pendulum has to swing back to a reasonable middle, where we are actually protecting the people of this state.”

To understand all the drama on Thursday, here’s the back story:

Some Democrats believe that mass incarceration under California’s “three-strikes” law was a huge mistake that particularly harmed communities of color. 

That includes Jones-Sawyer. “Spending billions of dollars on punishment means those dollars are unavailable to help victims and prevent the crime from happening in the first place,” said in a statement. “Criminals already take up a disproportionate amount of funding — spending more to punish more is a poor use of state resources.”

But it’s a heavier lift for Democrats to explain why they are skeptical of the bill than for Republicans to tweet attacks. Opponents of the bill argue that the measure would contribute to over-incarceration, would needlessly extend already-significant prison sentences, and would punish those at the lowest rungs of trafficking who may be victims of human trafficking themselves, explain CalMatters criminal justice reporter Nigel Duara and intern Anabel Sosa

Other Democrats have an eye on the 2024 primary, less than eight months away, and worry that Republicans will succeed in painting them as soft on crime.

They apparently include Newsom and new Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, who both reached out Wednesday to Grove and distanced themselves from the Tuesday vote.

And that definitely includes Assemblymember Liz Ortega, a Hayward Democrat on the committee, who before the floor session said she “made a bad decision” on Tuesday and voted “yes” on Thursday. “Voting against legislation targeting really bad people who traffic children was wrong,” she added in her tweet.


A new CalMatters newsletter: We’re adding to our selection of newsletters with one that goes out on Fridays from the California Divide team that focuses on the politics and policy of inequality. Read the latest installment here and subscribe here.


1 Voters will decide gay marriage, again

Protestors take part in the "No on Prop 8" march and rally in front of the Mormon Church to protest the church's support of Prop 8, Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008, in Los Angeles. Legal experts said it is unclear whether an attempt by gay-rights activists to overturn California's new ban on gay marriage has any chance of success. Photo by Damian Dovarganes, AP Photo
Protestors take part in a “No on Prop. 8” rally in Los Angeles on Nov. 6, 2008. Photo by Damian Dovarganes, AP Photo

The state Senate didn’t go quietly in its last floor session before the recess, either. It voted to put on the November 2024 ballot a proposed constitutional amendment to enshrine a fundamental right to marry and repeal Proposition 8 (approved by voters in 2008 to ban gay marriage) by removing language defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.

  • Assemblymember Evan Low, a Cupertino Democrat and amendment co-author, in a statement: “Today, with bipartisan support, we are one step closer to ensuring marriage equality as a fundamental right in California. ACA 5 will give voters the opportunity to remove a black stain from the California constitution… and these protections will protect against any future attempts to restrict marriage rights for same-sex and interracial couples.”

It’s a rare example of bipartisan agreement, or at least no Republicans voting against: The Senate vote on Thursday was 31-0; the Assembly vote in June was 67-0.

It is only one of several possible changes to the state constitution that the Legislature could put on the ballot next year. Other amendments are on criminal justice, elections, housing and labor. A reminder: They’re not subject to the deadline to get through policy committees this week, and the governor doesn’t get a say. 

In another front in the culture wars: Top state leaders announced Thursday that the state will send social studies textbooks to a Southern California school district if its board doesn’t reverse a decision to ban books that mention slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk.

The joint announcement by Gov. Newsom, state schools Supt. Tony Thurmond, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, Assembly Speaker Rivas and Democratic Assemblymember Corey Jackson of Perris, says that elementary students in the Temecula Valley Unified School District will start classes on Aug. 14 without enough textbooks. 

  • Newsom, in a statement: “Cancel culture has gone too far in Temecula: radicalized zealots on the school board rejected a textbook used by hundreds of thousands of students and now children will begin the school year without the tools they need to learn.”

The statement also points to a bill from Jackson that would fine school districts that don’t provide enough instructional materials, though the California School Boards Association has already come out against financial penalties.

This is the latest shot across the bow from top Democrats on book bans. Newsom, Thurmond and Attorney General Rob Bonta sent a strongly worded letter to school districts on June 1.

2 Does LA have a fix to homelessness?

A homeless encampment in Los Angeles on June 20, 2023. Photo by Julie A Hotz for CalMatters
A homeless encampment in Los Angeles on June 20, 2023. Photo by Julie A. Hotz for CalMatters

Some California officials are looking to Texas for answers to homelessness. Could a model be closer to home?

That’s the question posed by CalMatters’ homelessness policy reporter Marisa Kendall in a look at an initiative launched by Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass.

Known as Inside Safe, the program deploys outreach workers who offer hotel rooms to unhoused individuals living in encampments, with the goal to move them into long-term housing later. Using hotel rooms as temporary shelter is crucial: Case workers don’t have to trek all over the city to connect with patients, and it provides residents a safe place to heal from the trauma they’ve experienced on the street and get their documents in order. 

But seven months after clearing its first encampment, the program has moved few people into permanent housing. Since December, only about 77 people out of the 1,373 people who Inside Safe moved into hotels have found permanent housing. At the infamous Skid Row encampment, the program moved 175 people into hotel rooms, but as many as 2,000 people still live in the homeless community.

  • Bass, in a statement: “Make no mistake — we are not satisfied with the amount of people in housing.”

Why the low success rate? Bass cites a complex eligibility process and the city’s lack of affordable housing as major reasons. But the program itself is pricey: By leasing rooms in about three dozen motels, the city is paying between $100 and $125 a night, per room. During a committee meeting earlier this month, city staff said Inside Safe has spent nearly $40 million so far.

For the homeless residents in the program, a temporary room is also not enough to solve their housing issues. Grappling with a host of mental and physical health care issues, residents including Shayne Smith told Marisa they need more services.

  • Smith, a 53-year-old Inside Safe hotel resident: “I’m still not getting treatment and I have massive headaches every day so bad that I feel like I’m going to throw up. I can’t eat. I’ve lost a lot of weight. I’m in pain. Really bad pain all the time.”

CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters is away and will return July 24.

Clean energy projects are getting bogged down in red tape and permits, writes Terry Tamminen, the president and CEO of AltaSea and former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency.


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