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Column: It’s simple — peddling children for sex is serious

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SACRAMENTO — 

A classic line from a baseball movie aptly characterizes a bonehead play committed by some Democratic state legislators.

What happened in the California state Assembly truly was a bush-league error.

In the 1988 film “Bull Durham” — arguably the best baseball movie ever made — an exasperated minor league manager heatedly lectures his inept team: “Baseball is a simple game. You throw the ball. You catch the ball. You hit the ball.

“You got it?”

Similarly, the hardball game of lawmaking can be simple. Not always, but sometimes.

For example: If a pimp is peddling children for sex — supplying kids for pedophiles — it’s a serious crime.

No “ifs” or “buts.”

You got it, Democrats?

And “simple” doesn’t necessarily mean simplistic. Often it’s synonymous with common sense.

It’s real world truth and practicality, even if it doesn’t fit snugly into someone’s handbook of abstract ideology.

Fortunately for Democrats, Gov. Gavin Newsom and new Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas of rural Hollister in San Benito County recognized sound policy and read the political playing field. They saved their party from a potentially costly public backlash.

Here’s what I’m grousing about:

Two months ago, the heavily Democratic state Senate unanimously passed a Republican legislator’s bill, SB 14, to stiffen penalties for repeat sex trafficking of minors.

Sex trafficking now is considered a non-serious felony. SB 14 would officially designate it as “serious” when children are peddled.

The significance of labeling a felony “serious” is that it subjects the criminal to California’s “three strikes” law, which can substantially lengthen prison time for repeat offenders.

The bill was such a no-brainer that all 40 senators voted for it. In fact, both parties agreed not to even bother with a floor debate and roll-call vote. The measure was placed on what’s called the “consent calendar,” the soft landing place for bipartisan bills that are so noncontroversial dozens are routinely passed simultaneously en masse.

That was made possible because the author, Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), compromised with Democrats and amended the bill to apply only to trafficking of kids under 18. Originally, she wanted to apply the stiffer sentences to all sex trafficking, regardless of the victims’ ages.

Next stop: The Assembly Public Safety Committee. And that’s where the bill appeared to die until the chairman, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), got a wake-up call from Newsom, Rivas and many angry voters.

For years, that committee has been a deathbed for sentence-stiffening bills. Recent examples: A measure increasing the penalty for raping a developmentally disabled minor. Another for fentanyl dealers if the user is seriously injured by the drug.

Opponents of stiffer sentencing tend to be inflexibly adhered to the principle that increased prison time is wrong because it can overcrowd the lockups — and do so disproportionately with people of color.

They fly the flag of criminal justice reform, refusing to accept the notion that reform can be achieved while still acknowledging — for example — that career pimps should pay a higher price for their evil and not be free to prey on children.

“I’ve heard the opposition about Black Californians being disproportionately harmed by three strikes,” Odessa Perkins of Bakersfield told the Assembly committee last week.

“But I am here to say I was molested and raped repeatedly by Black and white men and even some women. So it does not matter the race. What matters is saving our children. Traffickers are getting out of jail early and reoffending, continuing the horrific cycle of abuse and depravity.”

Perkins, who is Black, testified that she was victimized beginning as a small child: “Being touched, groomed. Then I started being made to have sex with a grown man, then … with a lot of quote-unquote ‘uncles.’ Then I was trafficked to the highest bidder — drug dealers. But now what you see is a survivor.”

Democratic committee members were not swayed. They ducked a vote. The bill needed five “yes” votes to move on and received only two from the panel’s lone Republicans.

“Felony stupid,” says Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio. “Voters get outraged when the [crime punishment] pendulum swings too far the other way and politicians become too lenient. Right now people are on edge.”

“Some of these folks, their moral compass is off base,” Sacramento County Sheriff Jim Cooper told me, referring to his former colleagues in the Legislature. “This bill was an easy one.”

Before being elected sheriff, Cooper was a moderate Democratic assemblyman who tried to push several crime bills and, he says, couldn’t even get a committee hearing.

“In the current Legislature,” he asserts, “victims’ issues don’t matter.”

Sex trafficking matters to Newsom. The governor called Grove to express his disappointment. And he phoned Rivas to urge that the speaker intervene. At a Democratic caucus meeting, Rivas declared that the embarrassing situation needed to be fixed.

The Public Safety Committee quickly backpedaled. In a meeting that lasted only an eyelash, the panel voted 6 to 0 to resurrect the bill and send it to the Appropriations Committee.

Jones-Sawyer voted for the measure the second time. But he says it still needs an amendment to assure that victims forced to help traffickers aren’t subject to the stiffer sentences.

Grove told me she has amended the bill enough. “Forty senators didn’t think it needed more amendments,” she says.

Jones-Sawyer also notes that sex traffickers of minors already can receive sentences of 15 years to life if there’s force, coercion or violence. But that’s often difficult to prove, the bill’s advocates contend.

“It’s unfathomable to me that in California we don’t call trafficking of children a serious felony,” says retired Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy O’Malley, a Democrat.

“People are shocked. That’s why legislators got the pushback.”

Like baseball, politics basically is a simple game. When there’s too much voter pushback, you lose.

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