For more than five years, police officer Brian Marvel patrolled the North Park area of San Diego, a neighborhood with a high prostitution rate.
But it wasn't until a recent presentation about the state of sex trafficking in San Diego that he realized some of the women he met could have been human trafficking victims.
"Today I look at it and realize I could have helped those victims," Marvel said. "But I just didn't know it at the time. I didn't have the training that let me recognize signs of human trafficking."
A new ballot initiative called the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation (CASE) Act can help inform officers like Marvel about the domestic problem of sex trafficking, while increasing the penalties against offenders, said Daphne Phung, founder of California Against Slavery.
Last week, Phung and Chris Kelly, founder of Safer California Foundation, announced that their petition for the CASE Act has garnered 873,000 signatures, surpassing their goal of 800,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot this November.
Phung believes sex trafficking in California is a hidden reality: "It's very difficult for us to understand how anyone can be a slave in our own country," Phung said. "And also, there hasn't been as much education, awareness, and talking about this affair."
A 2011 report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics counted 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking in the United States between January 2008 and June 2010. Most of these incidents were classified as "sex trafficking" and most of the victims were U.S. citizens.
But the report reveals just a small portion of the underground human trafficking network in California. The state harbors three of the 13 cities in FBI's "High Intensity Child Prostitution Areas" -- Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.
Phung says that California is a hub for human trafficking for various reasons: its location by the border, its metropolises linked by the I-5, and its huge, diverse population.
But mostly, it's because California laws are simply not up to standard with today's growing human trafficking problem. Current California law punishes human trafficking offenders with 4, 6, or 8 years of prison for the trafficking of minors and 3-5 years for adults, penalties that are far less severe than that of rapists or kidnappers.
"We are not holding people accountable for their crimes," Phung said. "We have a huge economy, huge population, and a lot of resources and access to human trafficking, yet no infrastructure to really combat this crime."
The CASE Act proposes increasing prison sentences up to 15-years-to-life and fines up to $1.5 million that would directly help the victims, providing services such as therapy counseling, drug prevention, and child care services, as well as raising money for local law enforcements to do rescue mission and prevention work.
The Act will also force offenders to disclose Internet accounts, as many of the human trafficking practices are done online through social media.
Marvel said that building awareness would help streamline effective law enforcement as well.
"As the people became more aware of it, the police are more aware of it, and the law enforcement is on top of it" Marvel said. "There will be mandatory reporting, and people will be making a concerted effort to make sure such things don't happen."
Though the Act slated for the ballot, Phung, Kelly, and Marvel are still working to rally support from Californians to pass the Act in November. Phung believes this is important because it hits close to home.
"This is a real human rights abuse," she said. "It's not Thailand, it's not some foreign eastern European country. It's here in our backyard, and it could happen to anybody. It could be your neighbor, it could be family, it could be you."