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Colorado considers mandatory minimum prison sentences for human traffickers

On most days, Alicia was sent to a Denver-area hotel room, where a steady stream of people would show up and pay for sex.

From 9 a.m. to 4 a.m., she’d take call after call after call. And then she’d go home to her pimp, and he’d demand sex, too. Slap her around if she resisted. When she got pregnant with his child, she thought he’d let her out of the life.

“For me I had a whole fantasy, like we were going to be a family, and that life was going to stop at some point, but he had no intentions,” she told The Denver Post, which is identifying Alicia solely by her first name because she is a survivor of sex crimes.

When her perpetrator was arrested, Alicia was too terrified to walk into the courthouse. She didn’t have a phone because he’d tracked her that way before, so she didn’t tune into virtual court hearings. Eventually, he got probation, largely because Alicia didn’t participate in the court process.

Now, Alicia is speaking out in support of a bill in the Colorado legislature that would extend the statute of limitations on adult human-trafficking charges from three years to 20 years, giving prosecutors two decades in which to pursue criminal charges and survivors more time to come forward about the crimes. The bill also, more controversially, sets up mandatory minimum prison sentences for those convicted of human trafficking.

“I’ve really regained my independence back and my confidence and just knowing that I am capable and resilient — it’s taken a while but we’re almost fully there, hopefully,” said Alicia, whose son is now several years old. “My story has gone on for 10 years. Hopefully people can realize it takes more than three to speak up.”

The bill, SB24-035, has bipartisan sponsors: Sen. Rhonda Fields, of Aurora, and Rep. Monica Duran, of Wheat Ridge, both Democrats, as well as Sen. Byron Pelton, of Sterling, and Rep. Ty Winter, of Trinidad, both Republicans. While the proposal to lengthen the statute of limitations has been widely supported since the effort was introduced in January, the legislation’s mandatory minimum prison sentences have proved more controversial.

“What Colorado needs to do is put a strong message out to the rest of the world and the rest of the country: if you traffic people or you traffic children in the state of Colorado, you will be punished for it,” Winter said. “And I think that that voice should be loud and clear and resounding out of this building.”

Proponents say the mandatory prison sentences are necessary because of the insidious nature of human trafficking, and that the guaranteed prison sentences will serve as a deterrent to would-be traffickers. Opponents say the bill casts too wide a net, could be used against victims of human trafficking and strips judges of discretion in sentencing that is particularly needed given the nuances of human trafficking cases.

“Mandatory minimums don’t work,” said James Karbach, director of legislative policy for the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender. “…They’re not going to decrease the number of times the crime is committed.”

Making trafficking a “crime of violence”

Colorado divides human trafficking into two major categories: labor and sex trafficking. Labor trafficking involves coercing another person into performing labor, while sex trafficking involves coercing another person into engaging in commercial sexual activity. Under Colorado law, a person can be charged with human trafficking for knowingly recruiting, harboring, selling, isolating or enticing another person for the purposes of trafficking them.

Currently, human trafficking of adults is a mid-level felony that can be punished by probation or between four and 16 years in prison. The bill would classify human trafficking as a “crime of violence,” and require that those convicted be sentenced to between 10 and 32 years in prison on each count they are convicted of, with the sentences running back-to-back, not concurrently.

“I’m not a big proponent of mandatory minimum sentences, that’s not something I’ve ever really pushed for,” said Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, who is backing the bill. “But this is a very different kind of crime. It’s planned, it’s calculated, it’s continuous and it’s really a situation of manipulation and control. … These guys profit on the bodies of others. They are very dangerous in our community.”

Colorado’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws drew national attention in late 2021 when truck driver Rogel Aguilera-Mederos was sentenced to 110 years in prison for killing four people in a crash after he lost his brakes on Interstate 70. Amid widespread outrage over the length of the sentence, Gov. Jared Polis reduced Aguilera-Mederos’ prison sentence to 10 years. At the time, the district court judge who imposed the sentence said he would not have levied such a long sentence were it not required by the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

That lack of discretion for judges could cause problems in human trafficking cases, said Caroline McKinnon, executive director of Voluntad, a Denver nonprofit that provides services to survivors of human trafficking.

“We know that these situations can be incredibly complicated and that human trafficking is not a black and white type of situation, there are often many shades of gray involved,” she said. “…So there might be times when a mandatory minimum prison sentence might not be appropriate for someone.”

Fifty-four people have been convicted of human trafficking in Colorado since the state’s human trafficking laws were enacted in 2014, according to the 2023 annual report by the Colorado Human Trafficking Council. Four defendants were sentenced to probation alone, while 50 were sent to prison. The median sentence was 15 years, according to the report, which noted three instances in which defendants were sentenced to more than 300 years in prison.

Karbach said those numbers show that judges are handling human trafficking cases appropriately.

“Judges aren’t letting people willy nilly get convicted of human trafficking and go free,” he said.

But Ashley Morgan, director of the human trafficking unit at the Denver District Attorney’s Office, said mandatory prison sentences offer better protections for victims, noting that defendants often serve no more than half of their sentences before they are released.

“We have people getting out in under two years,” she said. “And that is terrifying for victims… Thoughtful judges understand the dynamics and sentence in the middle-to-higher part of the range. But if you look across the state as a whole, there are a lot of judges who don’t understand these complex dynamics, and it is concerning that people can get out almost immediately and go right back to harming that victim.”

Fear that victims will be prosecuted

Karbach worries that prosecutors will use the mandatory minimum prison sentences to pressure victims of human trafficking into cooperating with criminal investigations.

“That is usually a human trafficking victim who is put in second-in-command,” he said. “And it’s a deep second; they’re still very much subject to abuse and manipulation, but they often don’t have to continue to turn tricks if they’ll recruit girls and keep other girls in line… (Prosecutors) will tell them, we can seek 300 years against you in prison, or you can cooperate.”

Morgan said prosecutors recognize such people as victims and do not intend to prosecute them.

“We don’t want to go after victims,” she said. “And I’ve not seen prosecutors doing that. That’s a fear that is misguided.”

A recent amendment to the bill, which passed the state Senate and is now headed to the House, would stop prosecutors from pursuing criminal charges against anyone who can show they were forced or coerced into engaging in sex trafficking.

But Karbach said that amendment doesn’t fully protect victims, because the burden is on the victims to prove that defense. He noted that human trafficking is a difficult case even for district attorneys to prove in court.

“If they have a hard time proving it with all those resources, how is the person they charged with human trafficking who is sitting in a jail cell, and quite frankly their lawyer, supposed to count on being able to prove that when the rest of their life hangs in the balance?” he said.

McCann said prosecutors will still have full discretion to offer plea deals or adjust the charges a person faces to ensure a just outcome. She said that human traffickers are more likely to be deterred by long prison sentences than people who commit crimes of passion or opportunity.

“We want to send a signal to traffickers that this is going to be consistent punishment throughout the state,” she said. “So it’s not dependent on which judge you are in front of.”

Karbach said that shift of discretion away from judges and to prosecutors poses a problem.

“That’s what mandatory minimums do,” he said. “They increase the DA’s power and leverage, and they take away the ability of independent, non-biased judicial officers to do their job.”

Denver Post reporter Nick Coltrain contributed to this report. 

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