November 16, 2021
In a historic and long-fought victory, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Survivors of Trafficking Attaining Relief Together (START) Act into law. The START Act (A459/S674), sponsored by Senator Jessica Ramos and Representative Richard Gottfried, will allow New York State courts to vacate a range of criminal convictions stemming from a person’s experience as a victim of sex trafficking or labor trafficking. New York set an example when they passed the nation’s first vacatur law in 2010, allowing criminal record relief for survivors convicted of prostitution or prostitution-related crimes. DSW’s Melissa Sontag Broudo won the first-ever vacatur motion for a survivor of human trafficking in the country under that law.
But as advocates and policy experts know, individuals are trafficked into many types of labor outside of commercial sex and can be compelled to commit a range of crimes while being exploited. The former vacatur law left the vast majority of survivors of trafficking unprotected, subject to criminal penalties for crimes they had no choice in committing. Since New York’s law passed a decade ago, many other states recognized this need and passed vacatur laws that go further, protecting more survivors. Broudo, along with DSW’s Crystal DeBoise, are members of the coalition that has been pushing New York to expand its vacatur law. They teamed up with fellow attorneys, advocates, and service providers from the New York Anti-Trafficking Network (NYATN) to create the START Coalition and pass a law that includes all survivors.
The coalition has been advocating for years to bring about this victory, gaining support from district attorneys’ offices, service providers, and impacted community members from around the state. Expanding criminal record relief is an essential lifeline for many survivors, who are trying to reclaim their lives. A criminal record prevents many from being eligible for certain jobs, housing, healthcare, and other essential resources, and can have severe immigration consequences. Throughout the process of passing this bill, sixty brave survivors shared their stories with New York lawmakers to shed light on the impact vacatur could have on their lives and their communities. Sponsor Jessica Ramos delivered remarks right before the governor signed the bill, saying “the longer a survivor has a record the longer they stay vulnerable to further exploitation. Th[is] bill will lessen the barriers to employment, improving access to immigration legal remedies, & helping break cycles of trauma.”
In a thank you letter to all its supporters, the START Coalition noted, “This advocacy has truly been survivor-centered, and we could not have come this far without the testimonials and advocacy of survivors who envisioned a more just criminal legal system that actually places survivors first.” DSW is humbled to have witnessed the incredible work of survivors and advocates from the New York Anti-Trafficking Network and allied groups. This law will change the lives of many from within our own community and beyond.
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