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Survivors of sex trafficking are not criminals


Last February, this newspaper rightly praised Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to create a pathway to clemency for survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence whose crimes resulted from their victimization. With this action, Abbott has made it possible for survivors to heal from their trauma without the crushing burden of a conviction preventing them from accessing safe housing, securing gainful employment, supporting their children, and establishing a new life. We are proud of Texas for blazing a path forward for survivors.

Together, under the leadership of the Lone Star Justice Alliance and in partnership with more than 30 other organizations, we launched the Survivors’ Project to provide free legal services to survivors seeking to benefit from this new process. Since then, the project has trained more than 200 attorneys, created educational and advocacy materials, launched a survivor support network, and connected women to pro bono legal services.

As professionals working directly with trafficking survivors, we are thrilled by the progress. Two of us know firsthand how important clemency can be. Robbie Hamilton and Bekah Charleston received pardons from Abbott and (then) President Donald Trump, respectively. These pardons have changed our lives; now nothing can hold us back from supporting other survivors like ourselves.

When you are living under the crushing burden of a criminal record like so many trafficking victims are, you are literally cast out of society. Living without hope is one of the worst experiences one can have. Clemency gives survivors hope that they can be redeemed.

Our work with the Survivors’ Project has also reinforced our commitment to preventing the future criminalization of survivors. While a pardon can help alleviate the pain of a conviction, it comes after so much avoidable harm has already been done. Every effort must be made to avoid unnecessary and unjust convictions in the first place.

We can begin by closely examining the criminal cases of all children who have made an outcry of abuse. We are deeply troubled by reports that a young teenage girl in North Texas, Zephi Trevino, is facing transfer to the adult criminal justice system and a capital murder charge after her alleged sex trafficker killed a man who intended to purchase Zephi, a 16-year-old child, for sex. We are concerned that her situation as a potential victim of sex trafficking hasn’t been fully examined.

Our fervent hope is that trafficking victims are never unjustly punished for circumstances they are forced into. Our youngest and most vulnerable populations should be treated with the greatest consideration by our justice system and any girl who has been arrested at 16 should be tried as a minor.

We call upon the Dallas community to lead our state and country by developing policies and procedures to make sure to identify survivors of trafficking and violence, divert them from the criminal justice system, and support them through their recovery.

We urge reform efforts to focus on the voices of survivors and to rely upon the expertise of the Survivors Project partner organizations to ensure that evidence-based practices guide implementation efforts. Together, as a community, we can create a stronger justice system that promotes redemption, restoration and transformation.

Bekah Charleston is strategic initiatives director at The Jensen Project.

Robbie Hamilton is youth mentor at New Friends New Life.

Bianca Jackson is chief executive of New Friends New Life.

Janet Jensen is founder and executive director of The Jensen Project.

Natalie Nanasi is a law professor at Southern Methodist University and director of the Judge Elmo B. Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women.

Jessica Brazeal is chief programs officer at New Friends New Life.

They wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

For more information about the Survivors’ Project, and to apply either for pro bono legal services or to donate legal services, please go to

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