A Kansas woman who was sex trafficked as a minor and later convicted of felony sex crimes should not receive a pardon from Gov. Laura Kelly, a panel says.
The Kansas Prisoner Review Board recently considered the case of Hope Zeferjohn, who was 16 years old when she ran away from state custody and her boyfriend forced her into his sex trafficking operation. Using the threat of violence, he made her recruit other girls, which became the basis for her felony conviction.
Now 21, she is serving a six-year term at the Topeka Correctional Facility and will spend a lifetime on the sex offender registry unless the governor grants the pardon she requested.
Zeferjohn was charged as an adult in June 2016 with 10 felonies, including aggravated human trafficking, when she was 17. Federal and state laws bar prosecuting children for prostitution, but Zeferjohn accepted a plea agreement to avoid the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence.
An investigation by KCUR and The Topeka Capital-Journal highlighted Zeferjohn’s experience as one of 13 girls and young women who are facing criminal prosecutions after being placed in state custody, running away, and falling prey to sex traffickers while they were minors.
The three-member prisoner review board sent Zeferjohn’s request to the Department of Administration on Oct. 26, said Randy Bowman, spokesman for the Department of Corrections. There was no hearing on Zeferjohn's case, and the board disclosed only its recommendation, Bowman said.
The Department of Administration will review the recommendation before sending the matter to Kelly, a Democrat, for consideration. Kelly told KCUR and the Capital-Journal last month she is considering Zeferjohn’s case as she does every clemency request. Former Gov. Jeff Colyer denied Zeferjohn’s clemency petition last year.
“We take every clemency request seriously and will consider it along with the Prisoner Review Board’s recommendation when it is received,” said Lauren Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for Kelly.
Kansas statute requires the governor to wait 120 days from the time Zeferjohn filed her request for clemency, which was July 29, but the statute doesn’t set a deadline for the governor’s decision. The governor has the option of granting or denying Zeferjohn’s request, or she could reduce Zeferjohn’s sentence.
Vicki Smith, Zeferjohn’s lawyer, said she is disappointed in the board’s recommendation.
“Hope is a victim, and Kansas law now recognizes that people who are minors when they are trafficked should be permitted a defense to a charge of human trafficking when they themselves were being trafficked,” Smith said.
Smith said she hopes Kelly will recognize Zeferjohn as a victim.
“Hope was a child and while she was being trafficked,” Smith said, "she was beaten, and the very lives of her and her family threatened by her trafficker.”
Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay, whose office prosecuted Zeferjohn, said her sentence was fair because prosecutors couldn't corraborate Zeferjohn's claims of being a trafficking victim. Instead, he said, they found her a "willing participant" in the sexual exploitation and abuse of children, using drugs and deception to help her boyfriend, Anthony "Angel" Long, who is also in prison.
"When my office negotiated our plea agreement with Zeferjohn, we took all factors into account. With the agreement and recommendations from my office, she received approximately half of the legally presumptive sentence," Kagay said. "She has already been granted clemency."
The girls Zeferjohn and Long trafficked were not charged, Kagay added.
"None of these victims have been charged with a crime, nor should they be," Kagay said. "Clemency for Zefferjohn would unfairly absolve her of responsibility for the harm that she caused these victims."
Also Wednesday, a national trafficking victim organization gave Kansas a high grade for its anti-trafficking laws, but said the state still can improve on how it treats victims who commit crimes.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced that Kansas is one of 15 states whose anti-trafficking laws received an “A” ranking from Shared Hope International, a victim advocacy group.
Kansas, which has received the “A” grade for three years in a row, scored a 93.5 out of a possible 102.5 points. Kansas could improve with better laws about the criminal justice system’s handling of sex-trafficking victims who commit crimes.
Last year, two bills were introduced that called for setting aside convictions and records in hopes of helping young survivors of the sex trade. Schmidt said he expects those issues to come up again next year.
Peggy Lowe is a reporter at KCUR. She’s on Twitter @peggyllowe.
Sherman Smith is a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He’s on Twitter at @sherman_news.