John Cotton Richmond is more than a crime fighting powerhouse; he is a man of passion and conviction. As a prosecutor in the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit at the U.S. Department of Justice, he spends his days investigating and prosecuting cases to free victims and bring the heavy hand of justice against traffickers. He travels the world, working with foreign governments, prosecutors, nongovernmental organizations, and victim service organizations to bring training and policy assistance.
“One of the most interesting things I do is meet with real victims and hear their stories, and they are powerful stories of exploitation and abuse but also resiliency and hope. I also get to sit down with traffickers and perpetrators and hear their stories. It might surprise people they have stories too.”
After spending countless hours interviewing traffickers—learning firsthand about their business model, how they recruit and groom their victims—Richmond believes that traffickers chase one idol.
“One misconception is that traffickers are motivated by hate or bias; they are out to hurt people. They do hurt people, but their goal is not to go out and use people, their goal is to make money. It’s all about the money.”
This economic motivation compels traffickers to operate their crime like a business, recruiting victims who appear to need the least amount of manipulation or coercion. While trends indicate specific vulnerability factors may increase the risk of trafficking, there is no consistent stereotype by which traffickers or victims may be generalized—making success equally difficult to define.
John Cotton Richmond
U.S. Department of Justice
Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit
“Some cases I could point to [as successful] because more victims were rescued, but a single victim case is just as meaningful. We can point to cases where we have had greater monetary restitution for victims, but we don’t want to highlight wealthy traffickers. We could point to cases where a trafficker received a life sentence, but from the victim’s perspective having their autonomy to live their own life again is more important than the number of years someone spends in jail.”
Just as the measure of success is unique to each individual and case, the meaning Richmond finds in his work is uniquely rooted in a grand desire to allow the justice system to provide the foundation from which survivors may be empowered to move forward in freedom.
“The most meaningful part [of my work] is seeing survivors after the case is over, their trafficker has been removed, and they believe the system has worked for them. They can rebuild their lives. The resiliency and hope they demonstrate is inspiring.”
In a field where many feel called to dedicate their life’s work to fight against sex trafficking, Richmond says passion is not enough.
“For people who want to be involved in this work, one of the most important things is to become excellent. Victims need the very best efforts of individuals. Passion is important, essential; it is necessary, but not sufficient. Human trafficking victims need more than people who care a great deal; they need people who can bring excellence and passion to the important work of seeking justice.”
To counter the heaviness of his work on this topic, Richmond enjoys what he calls his “grand passion”: his wife and three children. The time they enjoy together provides the foundation from which Richmond is able to go back out and keep working. He said when people ask how he can deal with seeing so much evil, pain and darkness, he has one response:
“When you see survivors thriving, that inspiration, that encouragement, outweighs the darkness that exists. There is so much more power in light than in darkness. Light is stronger than darkness.”