Freedom Network USA is appalled by the sentence handed down to a child human trafficking survivor this week. Multiple media sources have shared the story of Pieper Lewis, a traumatized minor who experienced multiple forms of abuse and exploitation during her childhood. At the age of 15, the man she believed to be her boyfriend forced her to have sex for money. Ms. Lewis admitted to killing one of those abusive men after he repeatedly raped her in 2020. The judge sentenced her to 5 years probation in a residential living facility, electronic monitoring, and she was ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution to the man’s family.
We know this is not an isolated case. Similarly criminalized survivors have received national media attention over the past several years, including Chrystal Kizer, who is fighting her sentence, and Cyntonia Brown who received clemency in 2020. But there are thousands of cases where human trafficking survivors have been arrested, convicted, and sentenced for a crime they committed while being raped, beaten, threatened, or extorted.
While Pieper’s treatment is shockingly terrible, her case is not an outlier. It is the norm.
Last week, NBC Nightly News aired a story about labor trafficking in the illicit marijuana growing industry. Journalists joined local law enforcement during a raid on the property where they arrested the workers whom they had identified as victims of labor trafficking to the reporters. The workers were criminally charged.
Survivors have described their interactions with the criminal legal system as traumatic, and they cause long-term harm. Survivors with criminal records may struggle to get a job, find safe housing, attend school, or even chaperone their child’s school trips. The impact is so pervasive that most states have passed legislation that allows survivors to clear some of these records. But too many states limit the eligible survivors or the types of records that can be cleared.
Additionally, various media outlets have drawn attention to Iowa’s lack of safe harbor laws. Many states protect minors identified as human trafficking survivors and shield them from criminal charges, but Iowa is one that does not.
Pieper Lewis’ treatment reminds us that the fight against human trafficking is broken, it not only fails to prevent trafficking, but it often actually makes the lives of survivors worse. The criminal legal system can not be our primary tool in the fight against human trafficking. The US cannot continue to create laws and programs to band-aid over the harm that criminalization has caused these communities. We have to find a better way.
If you or someone you know has a criminal record as a result of their trafficking experience, please contact Freedom Network USA’s Survivor Reentry Project to find out if the record can be cleared and to find free legal help with the process.