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Human Trafficking Cases Slipping Through the Cracks in Federal and State Legal Systems
Urban Institute

July, 2012

Despite a surge in federal and state laws criminalizing human trafficking, labor and sex trafficking cases are rarely prosecuted, according to an Urban Institute–Northeastern University study released Wednesday.

Researchers from the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center (Colleen Owens, Meredith Dank, and William Adams) and Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice (Amy Farrell, Jack McDevitt, Rebecca Pfeffer, and Stephanie Fahy) found that police officers, prosecutors, judges, juries, and officials from all levels of government, especially the state, lack awareness of human trafficking law and don’t consider such cases a priority. The result is that many human trafficking cases are being passed over by state and federal legal systems.

The researchers analyzed data from 140 closed human trafficking cases in 12 counties across the country, reviewed 530 incident reports of related crimes, and interviewed 166 law enforcement officials, prosecutors, service providers, and other criminal justice stakeholders.

Although most reviewed cases met the federal definition of human trafficking, only 7 percent resulted in a state or federal sex trafficking charge, 9 percent in a sex trafficking of a minor charge, and 2 percent in a labor trafficking charge.

The researchers found that human trafficking victims, including minors, are being arrested at high rates. In instances involving undocumented immigrants, many are deported despite legal protections under federal law.

The Urban Institute–Northeastern University team uncovered many challenges for identifying, investigating, and prosecuting human trafficking. The result: cases not being identified or falling through the cracks after identification, particularly on the state and local level.

“Many people say that human trafficking is a hidden crime and our study showed that our legal systems are further concealing the nature and prevalence of these crimes,” said the Urban Institute’s Colleen Owens. “When law enforcement and prosecutors decide to drop these cases or charge defendants with lesser crimes, they unintentionally reinforce the idea that human trafficking is not a problem in the United States.”

Based on data from 140 closed human trafficking law enforcement case files, the researchers found:

  • 85 percent of investigated cases involved sex trafficking.
  • 11 percent were labor trafficking
  • 4 percent were both labor and sex trafficking.
  • 80 percent of sex trafficking victims were under 20 years old.
  • 35 percent of sex trafficking victims were arrested by local or federal law enforcement despite their youth.
  • 81 percent of labor trafficking victims were not U.S. citizens.

Local law enforcement officials, the study concluded, have trouble identifying and investigating human trafficking because they:

  • Have insufficient resources for training, staffing, and investigating the full scope of labor and sex trafficking.
  • Often focus narrowly on identifying sex trafficking of minors, usually U.S. citizens.
  • Don’t have specialized units or personnel to investigate labor trafficking cases.
  • Usually lack the diversity, cultural competence, and language skills to communicate with immigrant populations and trafficking victims or to infiltrate criminal networks.
  • Use reactive strategies to identify trafficking cases, such as waiting for first-person or third-party reports of victimization.
  • Rely on victim statements as the most important element of a human trafficking investigation.
  • Don’t investigate human trafficking cases when prosecutors typically don’t choose to prosecute them.
  • Lack specialized services to support victims, especially secure housing.
  • Have, in some instances, negative views of labor and sex trafficking victims.
State prosecutors have difficulty pursuing human trafficking cases because they:
  • Lack legal precedent and case law to guide effective use of state human trafficking laws.
  • Are not incentivized to pursue human trafficking cases or to use state human trafficking laws.
  • Are unaware, in some cases, of their states’ trafficking law or the elements necessary to prove labor or sex trafficking.
  • Often believe that victims lack credibility due to many of the characteristics that made them vulnerable to being trafficked (such as being a runaway or an undocumented immigrant).
  • Have difficulty getting victims to cooperate because of fear, intimidation, or trauma.
  • Don’t have sufficient resources to prosecute lengthy or demanding cases.
  • Lack specialized human trafficking units, especially for labor trafficking, and other institutional infrastructure.
  • Have meager resources to collect evidence across state lines.
  • Are unequipped to handle interstate sex and labor trafficking cases and believe federal prosecutors are better positioned to handle them.
  • Have no training to investigate and litigate cases using the state’s human trafficking laws.

“Identifying Challenges to Improve the Investigation and Prosecution of State and Local Human Trafficking Cases” was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation. It provides information, analyses, and perspectives to public and private decisionmakers to help them address these problems and strives to deepen citizens’ understanding of the issues and trade-offs that policymakers face.


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