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Cindy McCain and the moral panic over human trafficking


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Cindy McCain and the moral panic over human trafficking

  • I arrested a man on marijuana charges. Then he took his own life.

  • Sentenced to life at 16 in slaying of man who she said pulled a gun on her

  • Prosecutors should support juvenile justice law, not challenge it, professor argues

  • About six weeks before his death, Arizona prisoner wrote to the court: ‘Notice I am being killed’

  • As DA, Kamala Harris supported a policy requiring police to turn over undocumented minors to ICE after an arrest, regardless of whether they were convicted

In the Spotlight

Cindy McCain and the moral panic over human trafficking

Cindy McCain has spent years trying to make the public aware of the dangers of human trafficking. Recently, though, she seems to have given the public all the information they need to remain wary of her “see something, say something” approach. On an Arizona radio show, she shared a personal anecdote, trying to demonstrate how people can help protect victims. McCain said that recently, at an airport in Phoenix, she saw something that she said “looked odd,” explaining, “it was a woman of a different ethnicity than the child, this little toddler she had. Something didn’t click with me. I tell people to trust your gut. I went over to the police and told them what I thought. They went over and questioned her and, by God, she was trafficking that kid.” But she wasn’t. The Phoenix Police Department said no trafficking had occurred. [Sarah Mervosh / New York Times]

If nothing else, this incident might indicate that “trust your gut” is terrible advice. Preshuslee Thompson of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University notes McCain’s emphasis on ethnicities as a factor in her judgment: “Our implicit biases are processed in the unconscious part of our mind,” said Thompson, who conducts training on implicit bias. “So a lot of times you find that you have implicit biases that don’t align with your lived experience.” If something makes you feel suspicious, “you have to have that moment of self-reflection,” Thompson said. “Really ask yourself: ‘Why am I feeling this way?’” [Sarah Mervosh / New York Times]

This is not the first Super Bowl season when McCain publicized her cause by raising dubious alarm bells. In 2014, McCain told Politico that she was determined to use the Super Bowl as a “catalyst” to call attention to sex trafficking. “A lot of people either misunderstand it or don’t know about it, don’t believe it exists—‘it exists overseas.’ So the beginning of this of course is educating people about it.” [Lucy McCalmont / Politico]

The same year, McCain stood next to two politicians announcing a law enforcement crackdown and declared that the Super Bowl is “the largest human-trafficking event on the planet.” But no data actually support “the notion that increased sex trafficking accompanies the Super Bowl,” Kate Mogulescu, a public defender who ran a program representing most people arrested on prostitution charges in New York City, wrote in the New York Times. “Even with this lack of evidence, the myth has taken hold through sheer force of repetition, playing on desires to rescue trafficking victims and appear tough on crime. … The actual number of traffickers investigated or prosecuted hovers around zero.” [Kate Mogulescu / New York Times]

Human trafficking now falls squarely in the realm of “moral panic,” which is defined by the Online Dictionary of the Social Sciences as a “panic or overreaction to forms of deviance or wrongdoing believed to be threats to the moral order. Moral panics are usually framed by the media and led by community leaders or groups intent on changing laws or practices.” They “gather converts because they touch on people’s fears and because they also use specific events or problems as symbols of what many feel to represent ‘all that is wrong with the nation.’” Other examples include the “satanic panic,” the war on drugs, and child abduction by pedophiles.

In a 2008 article, Professors Elizabeth Scott and Laurence Steinberg described legal changes that “transformed juvenile crime regulation from a system that viewed most youth crime as the product of immaturity into one that is ready to hold many youths to the standard of accountability imposed on adults.” They argue that these changes were “undertaken in an atmosphere of moral panic, with little deliberation about consequences and costs.” [Elizabeth S. Scott and Laurence Steinberg / Columbia Public Law Research Paper]

More recently, Professor Babe Howell wrote that “the NYPD has manipulated and exaggerated the threat of gang crime in order to generate a ‘moral panic’ and shore up support for intensive and unjustified policing and surveillance of youth of color based on non-criminal conduct.” The NYPD has shifted away from broken windows and stop and frisk, “increasingly relying on an overblown narrative of gang and crew violence as a justification to police non-criminal conduct—a narrative that allows law enforcement to avoid oversight and transparency.” [Babe Howell / Denver Criminal Law Review]

After McCain’s fear was revealed to be a false alarm, she responded by tweet, commending the police for their diligence and adding: “I apologize if anything else I have said on this matter distracts from ‘if you see something, say something.’” Elaine Andino, a spokesperson for an anti-trafficking group, said that police have the same message. “We have been told repeatedly, we would rather people call and report human trafficking incidents and be wrong 100 times on the off chance that they are right one time.” [Sarah Mervosh / New York Times] But this attitude assumes that there are only costs associated with failures to act upon actual incidents of trafficking. McCain and the police appear blind to the costs of false alarms.

These false positives are “actively harmful” because, when they lead to police crackdowns, they create “bad policy,” writes Mogulescu. In the days leading up to the 2014 Super Bowl, “local law enforcement dedicated tremendous resources” to making dozens of sex work arrests. Aggressive arrest practices can have devastating consequences for both trafficked and nontrafficked people engaging in sex work. Many have survived trauma, and “turning them into defendants and pushing them through the criminal justice system contradicts any claim of assistance.” Often, she notes, increases in arrests are not indications of an increase in criminal activity, “but rather of an increase in policing.” [Kate Mogulescu / New York Times] Even an encounter with police that does not result in arrest can be traumatic and degrading, and it can quickly escalate into violence. “When the discussion is dominated by fear-mongering, we fail to meaningfully address the actual causes of human trafficking,” Mogulescu adds. The same can be said of “super predators” and crack cocaine. The sooner we learn this lesson, the better.

Stories From The Appeal

 

Baltimore Police Department officers facing protesters who were gathered near the department’s Western District station during a march and vigil in 2015 over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
[Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images]

I Arrested a Man on Marijuana Charges. Then He Took His Own Life.  A former Baltimore police officer says it’s time for the department to stop wasteful, harmful marijuana arrests, especially after Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s announcement that her office would not prosecute cases of possession. [Larry Smith]

Sentenced to Life at 16 in Slaying of Man Who She Said Pulled a Gun on Her. In 1996, Michele Benjamin was sentenced to life without parole for killing a man who she said solicited her for sex and menaced her with a weapon in New Orleans. A Supreme Court decision led her to be re-sentenced to life with a chance at parole in 2016. [Josie Duffy Rice]

Stories From Around the Country

Prosecutors should support juvenile justice law, not challenge it, professor argues: Last year, California passed Senate Bill 1391, a landmark law to keep 14- and 15-year-olds out of adult criminal court. Now, some prosecutors are claiming it is unconstitutional and in conflict with earlier ballot measures. In a column for the Sacramento Bee, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, describes these prosecutors as “substituting their own policy preferences—and the preservation of their own power—for the democratic process.” Chemerinsky points out that the law is consistent with earlier reforms. “Clearly,” he writes, “a law that keeps children out of adult court furthers the twin goals of reducing prison spending and giving youth more opportunity for rehabilitation”—goals of the 2016 ballot measure Proposition 57. “Taking to heart Prop. 57’s commitment to youth rehabilitation underscores the need to implement SB 1391, not challenge it in the courts.” [Erwin Chemerinsky / Sacramento Bee]

About six weeks before his death, Arizona prisoner wrote to the court: ‘Notice I am being killed’: Richard Washington died on Jan. 31 of various health complications, six weeks after he wrote to the court, warning that inadequate medical care would kill him. He is the second person since 2017 to die shortly after filing a court record, predicting imminent death because of shoddy healthcare. Washington wrote that the corrections agency was “actively refusing” to give him medication. “My greatest fear is that I’m going to die more sooner than later should this treatment—or lack there of—continues [sic].” The Arizona Department of Corrections should have been on notice. In 2014, Arizona prisons reached a settlement with the ACLU requiring it to improve healthcare services, and last June, a federal judge found the prison system had failed to do so. [Steven Hsieh / Phoenix New Times]

As DA, Kamala Harris supported a policy requiring police to turn over undocumented minors to ICE after an arrest, regardless of whether they were convicted: San Francisco became a sanctuary city since 1989, but the city chipped away at its policy in 1992, removing protections for adults suspected of crimes. In 2008, an undocumented 21-year-old was arrested in the murders of three members of a San Francisco family, and it was revealed that the man had been arrested at age 17 and found guilty of attempted robbery and assault, but was never reported to federal immigration authorities. After the news broke, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom said police would begin reporting arrested undocumented minors to ICE, regardless of whether they had been convicted of anything. Kamala Harris, who was San Francisco’s district attorney and had until that incident—and again as senator—supported immigrant rights, threw her support behind the mayor. After one year of the policy, over 100 young suspects were reported to ICE for deportation. In one instance, a 14-year-old who had been in the U.S. since he was 2 was handed over to ICE after he took a BB gun to school to show off to friends. After Harris and Newsom left office, the policy changed. [Nathan McDermott and Andrew Kaczynski / CNN]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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