Editorials

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly should pardon young sex trafficking victim serving 6 years

What our criminal justice system still doesn’t get about sex crimes could fill a library.

Most of its volumes would tell us about the many only theoretically or lightly investigated sexual assault allegations that “couldn’t” be prosecuted.

In its pages, acts of coercion would sometimes be referred to as “affairs” and victims as “mistresses.”

On one shelf, we’d have cases involving women falsely accused of filing false rape reports, often because survivors didn’t conform to our misshapen ideas about how “real” victims behave.

And then, as reported Monday by KCUR and the Topeka Capital-Journal, there’s the book that could be written about young Kansas women forced into sex trafficking and later prosecuted for it, despite federal and state laws that bar prosecuting children for prostitution.

Hope Zeferjohn was just 14 when she met the 24-year-old she at first thought of as her boyfriend, then her pimp and “warden.” He beat her so badly she suffered two miscarriages, and he threatened to kill the young child she did have if she did not recruit at least two other young women.

As a result, in 2016, when Zeferjohn was 17, Kansas charged her with aggravated human trafficking. Today, she is serving a nearly six-year sentence in the Topeka Correctional Facility.

Former Gov. Jeff Colyer turned down her first request for a pardon, and she is now trying again with Gov. Laura Kelly.

We hope Kelly gives her the second chance she’s asking for, not only for the sake of Zeferjohn herself, and others in her situation, but to make clear that after running away from placements in foster care or the juvenile justice system, children are often forced first into trafficking and then into recruiting and other illegal acts.

These aren’t just women who made poor choices, but women who most often didn’t have choices.

Prosecutors said they felt for Zeferjohn but couldn’t let her off the hook because she eventually victimized other girls.

“I think you started out as a victim in this case,” District Judge David Debenham told her. “You crossed the line at some point in time.” Lines like the one he’s talking about do exist, and victims sometimes do become victimizers.

But women’s prisons like the one in Topeka are full of inmates whose crimes weren’t completely voluntary. And while that doesn’t absolve these convicts of all responsibility, it does make us question what good it does anyone to put a 17-year-old victim behind bars for six crucial, costly years.

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