Webinar addresses vacating the records of human trafficking victims

January 13, 2021

Outdoor view of the Quinnipiac School of Law Center on a bright winter day

A proposed bill that would expunge criminal convictions for Connecticut’s trafficking victims was the focus of the Quinnipiac School of Law’s January 8 webinar, “Fighting Human Trafficking by Decriminalizing Victims: Expanding Connecticut’s Vacatur Laws.”

The webinar, part of an ongoing series to raise awareness of human trafficking, was planned by the law school’s Human Trafficking Prevention Project. Nearly 250 viewers listened as a diverse group of lawyers and experts weighed in on the bill, which was drafted by the school’s Civil Justice Clinic and HTPP.

“Hopefully after today, we can reach a consensus about how we can make our democracy and Connecticut work better for trafficking victims,” said Sheila Hayre, visiting associate professor of law at Quinnipiac and faculty supervisor in the Civil Justice Clinic.

Vacatur, a form of criminal record relief, allows victims of human trafficking to apply to vacate — or set aside — their criminal convictions if they can show these convictions resulted from their having been trafficked. Currently, Connecticut’s vacatur legislation only covers prostitution charges, which the bill seeks to change.

Panel moderator Joette Katz, a former Connecticut Supreme Court associate justice and former commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, views Connecticut’s current vacatur law as shortsighted and often damning for survivors.

“Traffickers often control their victims by compelling them to engage in a range of illegal activities,” Katz said. “As survivors struggle to rebuild their lives, their criminal records severely limit their access to employment, housing, education and other building blocks of civic life.”

Panelist Theresa Leonard Rozyn, a Connecticut resident who was first trafficked along with her brother as a child, experienced such hardships. She described being locked into a years-long cycle of crime and desperation, during which she received 44 criminal convictions.

Rozyn spent years trying to get her convictions overturned, a process she described as “shame-based,” and “designed to make survivors give up.”

With the help of attorneys, advocates and family, Rozyn eventually won her battle. Today, she works as a home health aide, is married, and leads a happy, productive life. She co-founded The Underground, an organization that raises awareness about domestic sex trafficking, advocates for public policies and helps victims turn their lives around.

“Once I got that pardon, doors opened for me that would never have opened before,” she said.

The other panelists viewed Rozyn’s story as emblematic of why Connecticut’s vacatur laws should include Class A and B felonies, such as robbery, drug possession and certain assault charges.

Panelist and Florida-based prosecutor Jenny Rossman believes that charges of human trafficking against survivors also should potentially be expunged, because a trafficker’s senior-most victims—or “bottoms”— are often coerced into the recruitment process.

Rossman, who heads the sex crimes/human trafficking unit in the state’s attorney’s office in Orlando, urged compassion when thinking about the experiences of this “particularly complicated” group of trafficking victims.

“As prosecutors, we usually don’t think of vacating convictions as part of our jobs,” she said. “I think it’s our job to do justice and make things right.”

Panelist Kate Mogulescu, an associate professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School, agreed. According to Mogulescu, these additions to Connecticut’s vacatur legislation would make it one of the top 10 states in the country for trafficking survivors.

She also views collaboration between community-based organizations, public defenders’ offices and other agencies that provide assistance to victims as critical.

“Most victims don’t actually know what appears on their criminal history,” said Mogulescu, who founded the Survivor Reentry Project at the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence. “We have to help survivors understand that, and then tell them what laws are available to help them.”

Other panelists included Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo and State Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, who is chair of Connecticut’s Trafficking in Persons Council. Their combined perspectives gave Hayre and other members of the Civil Justice Clinic much to think about, and she is confident that their proposal is headed in the right direction.

“This is the next step, in terms of legislation,” Hayre said. “I am incredibly grateful that we managed to come together for such an eye-opening conversation.”

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