KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
An increasing number of women who have faced prostitution charges are being given the chance to clean up their criminal records. Advocates say many prostitutes are actually victims of human trafficking. NPR's Carrie Johnson brings us the story of one woman who's trying to move on.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: In this dark apartment, not far from Dallas, a young woman pushes up her sleeve to show off a tattoo of a lotus flower. The deep purple ink covers up an older mark.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: If you look closely, you can still see the diamonds. So it said M and a P because that's what his name was, and it had a chain of diamonds around it.
JOHNSON: MP was her pimp. That earlier tattoo - a brand, to show the world she belonged to him. She has another on her back from a different pimp.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Once they put their name on me, I was their property.
JOHNSON: The 24-year-old woman, who NPR is not identifying, tells us she spent her teenage years forced into prostitution. It was brutal.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: My skull has been cracked, all of my ribs, front, have been broken. Black eyes, you know, regular getting beat up.
JOHNSON: Those injuries have healed, but she was a convicted prostitute and that criminal record was harder to get rid of.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You know, it's not ever going to be forgotten. I'm not ever going to forget what I've done and what I've gone through. But, at the same time, I don't want it thrown in my face every time I'm trying to seek employment. I don't want to have to explain myself every time.
JOHNSON: Recently, with the help of volunteer lawyers and a little-known law, the woman with the flower tattoo convinced a Maryland judge to help, to wipe away her conviction on prostitution charges. It's a process known as vacatur, and it's now an option in 20 states for people who can persuade a judge someone forced or coerced them into selling their bodies.
JESSICA EMERSON: This is justice. It's finally giving these individuals their lives back.
JOHNSON: Jessica Emerson is a lawyer who helped the young woman clear her record. Emerson is leading the way in Maryland, where the vacatur law has been on the books for years but used just twice.
EMERSON: If you are not addressing their criminal record, you are sending them back out into the world with a bull's-eye on their back because the second they go to try to get a job, the second they try to apply for safe housing, they're going to have a roadblock.
JOHNSON: And the pimps use that to their advantage. Bradley Myles leads the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that fights human trafficking.
BRADLEY MYLES: Traffickers use the criminalization of a victim as another way to gain power over that victim and remind them of the hopelessness of their road back.
JOHNSON: Back in Texas, the young woman with the lotus tattoo explains how it all began. She says she was raped by a stranger. She was just 11 years old. For the next two years she acted out - running away, fighting with her parents. Then one day she was walking to a friend's house and a man in a Mercedes waved her over to his car.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: He took me to get my nails done. He took me shopping. I got my hair done. And he gave me a pill, which was Ecstasy, and then he started giving me more pills. And then forcing the pills on me and told me that I wasn't going to be going home.
JOHNSON: Eventually, the girl and her pimp were arrested, but police told her mom she might never get back on track.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I had one police officer here in Dallas tell me that there is no way that they could do anything for me. He didn't think there was any hope for her. She was 13.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I just kept running away, and every time I ran away I'd end up in another pimp's arms.
JOHNSON: Then four years ago, a police detective arrived at her hotel room near Baltimore, Md., part of a sting operation targeting pimps and prostitutes working near the airport. It wasn't her first arrest, but it was, she says, the first time a police officer treated her like a person.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: He told me that he saw something in my eyes and started asking me about my life. And I started telling him.
DAN DICKEY: We actually came across this case by just doing surveillance on a local hotel.
JOHNSON: That's Detective Dan Dickey. He works in Anne Arundel County, Md. He's a member of a federal task force to find and prosecute sex trafficking. It's his job, he says, to make arrests, but there's more to it than that.
DICKEY: I went and visited her, had a conversation with her and then actually called one of our nonprofits that we work with and told her this girl's in jail. She's willing to hear what you have to say.
JOHNSON: Someone from that local group talked with the young woman, gave her a place to stay after she got out of jail, connected her with the help she needed to get away from her pimp for good. Eventually, she moved back to Texas to be near her family. She had a baby boy last year. Now she's trying to get back into school.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I want to provide my son with a good life. It might not be the most extravagant. I don't want to be rich. I just want to live a better life than I have lived.
JOHNSON: Taking prostitution charges off her permanent record was a big step in that direction. Carrie Johnson, NPR News.
MCEVERS: This story was co-reported with NPR producer Evie Stone.
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