Identifying Effective Counter-Trafficking Programs and Practices in the U.S.: Legislative, Legal, and Public Opinion Strategies that Work is a recent study that examines arrests or prosecutions under state human trafficking laws and public perceptions of human trafficking. The key findings in this study point to the need for comprehensive legislation that goes beyond criminal penalties to include protections and access to justice for victims as well as tools for law enforcement and prosecutors.
The Role of Victim Protections and Need for Comprehensive Legislation
One of the most notable findings is the impact of incorporating “safe harbor” provisions and ensuring that victims can sue perpetrators in civil court. According to the report’s findings, laws that provide “safe harbor” and opportunities for survivors to bring their own lawsuits “strongly predict arrest and prosecutions.” This finding provides critical support for expanding victim protections and remedies alongside criminal laws by showing that access to justice for victims actually supports, rather than undermines, enforcement efforts.
Indeed, ensuring that victims are not treated as criminals is fundamental. The report connected non-criminalization of minor victims with increased cooperation noting that “safe harbor makes prosecuting cases of minor victims less difficult. Minors may be more likely to cooperate in an investigation and prosecution given the safe harbor guarantees.” When sex trafficked children are not criminalized for their own victimization, child serving agencies are not afraid to report the commercial sexual exploitation of the young people they serve. Similarly, when sex trafficked youth are recognized as victims and are able to access services instead of detention, law enforcement and prosecutors have the opportunity to develop rapport. In Demanding Justice Arizona, a field assessment of victims’ access to justice through demand enforcement in Arizona, prosecutors reported “giving victims time to access services . . . benefits the prosecution because victims who received services and established rapport with prosecutors are better witnesses.” In the fight against sex trafficking, advocates have long promoted a victim-centered, multi-faceted approach.
Although the report does not comment on whether high penalties are an effective deterrent to would-be perpetrators, the report does find that high penalties alone do not ensure that law enforcement and prosecutors actually enforce these penalties under human trafficking laws through arrests and prosecutions, supporting findings from Shared Hope’s Demanding Justice Report. Instead, the recent study lists several factors that may be considered by prosecutors, in addition to severity of penalties:
….although many states passed stand-alone criminalization laws on human trafficking, prosecutors may opt to prosecute a human trafficking case as pimping, pandering, compelling prostitution, or any number of other related crimes, rather than as human trafficking. The reasons for this include the reticence of prosecutors to use a new and untested statute, the potential to obtain a steeper penalty under a different crime, or lack of familiarity with the new crime.
Looking beyond criminal penalties, the report stresses that “state human trafficking legislation be comprehensive across all categories [state investment, civil remedies, and criminalization] rather than being extremely harsh in only one category.” A comprehensive legislative approach, supported in this report, is the core of Shared Hope’s Protected Innocence Challenge which encourages states to establish laws to help prevent child sex trafficking. Like this study, which found that “more states have legislated on human trafficking through criminalization than through state investment or civil remedies,” the Protected Innocence Challenge Annual Reports over the past five years have shown great strides in criminalizing child sex trafficking, yet no state has fully implemented all of the foundational protective provisions for child victims.
The Role of Public Perception
The report reflected a dramatic discrepancy in the belief that human trafficking is occurring locally: “When asked about how common sex trafficking is, 73% of the public reports that it is widespread or occasional in the U.S.; however, that number drops to 54% when asked about their state, and 20% when asked about their local community.”
Another concerning finding:
Sex-related behaviors affect beliefs about human trafficking. Respondents who consumed pornography within the last year have more knowledge of human trafficking, but they think that it should be less of a government priority. Similarly, respondents visiting a strip club within the last year reported lower levels of concern about human trafficking and thought that human trafficking should be less of a government priority than those respondents not visiting a strip club within the last year.
Lack of concern despite higher knowledge about human trafficking among consumers of pornography warrants serious consideration in addressing demand for sex trafficking victims.
Creating remedies for victims and developing systems that that ensure appropriate services are critical to combatting this crime. Even as awareness increases, this new research clarifies that a broad range of criminal and civil laws must be in place to address the many facets, and consequences, of human trafficking.
We still have a lot of work to do, America.