Ending Modern-Day Slavery: Using Research to Inform U.S. Anti-Human Trafficking Efforts

by Maureen Q. McGough

NIJ study examines the challenges facing the criminal justice system when combating human trafficking.

person behind bars 

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Trafficking in persons is modern-day slavery and exists in virtually every country in the world — and the United States is no exception.[1] Almost 150 years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, there are still men, women and children enslaved into labor and commercial sexual exploitation in the U.S.

See "Understanding Modern-Day Slavery"

In recent years the worldwide human trafficking problem has attracted significant political and social attention. Awareness-raising initiatives such as the United Nations' Blue Heart Campaign[2] encourage involvement and action to fight human trafficking on a global scale. In the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security's Blue Campaign unites anti-human trafficking programs and offers resources for law enforcement and the public to help raise awareness and provide much-needed training.[3]

Despite growing awareness of the issue and an influx of resources from such influential bodies as the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations, foundations, non-governmental organizations and the U.S. government, the field is still hampered by its inability to measure the size and scope of trafficking.[4]

The data used to estimate the prevalence of human trafficking in the U.S. are lacking in scope and quality at the federal, state and local levels.[5] The lack of reliable data and a dependence on inadequate evidence have fueled disagreement among anti-human trafficking movements in this country, and some researchers have criticized the issue as unsubstantiated and estimates of the problem as dubious.[6] Recent estimates of people trafficked into the U.S. each year, for example, have varied widely from a low of approximately 14,500 to a high of approximately 50,000.[7]

Unfortunately, challenges also exist in gauging the effectiveness of the criminal justice system's response. Rates of identification, investigation and prosecution are of limited value in determining the effectiveness of U.S. responses to human trafficking because the data supporting prevalence estimates are unreliable.

Research can play an invaluable role in understanding the criminal justice system's ability to respond to trafficking and in identifying obstacles that hinder current efforts. The need for robust research is all the more pressing given restricted budgets and declining resources. At a time when governments increasingly are looking to use evidence-based practices, policymakers and practitioners are looking to the research community to produce the data needed to analyze the impact of anti-trafficking efforts.

The problem can be cyclical — without accurate estimates of the prevalence of human trafficking, it can be difficult to know how to allocate resources to study the issue. The U.S. State Department's annual compendium of countries' anti-human trafficking efforts, the Trafficking in Persons Report, recognizes this data deficiency and recommends that the U.S. improve the data and analysis of human trafficking cases at the state and local level.[8] NIJ has funded a number of projects to improve data collection and analysis of the issue. This article discusses one recent study that looked specifically at the challenges facing state and local criminal justice systems.

A Hidden Crime

The nature of human trafficking helps keep this crime hidden. Captors often closely guard their victims, leaving them isolated with little to no freedom of movement.[9] They restrict victims' contact with the outside world.[10] Domestic servants remain "invisible" in private homes, and private businesses can serve as fronts for trafficking operations.[11] Many victims face language barriers that prevent them from seeking help. Additionally, international victims who enter the U.S. may be uncertain of their immigration status and thus less inclined to work with authorities.

Furthermore, victims, for a variety of reasons, do not always identify themselves as such. Human trafficking victims suffer tragic psychological trauma and may experience Stockholm syndrome, generating positive feelings and gratitude toward their captors for perceived favors or even for being allowed to live.[12] Law enforcement commonly lacks training to identify these signs of trauma, making it difficult for them to sever the controlling bond that captors have over their victims and decreasing the likelihood that victims will cooperate.[13] Even if victims identify themselves as such and are aware of their rights, they still might hesitate to report their victimization out of fear of reprisal from the trafficker, lack of trust in law enforcement or fear of deportation.[14]

Challenges at the State and Local Levels

Since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, 49 states have enacted legislation that criminalizes human trafficking and empowers state and local law enforcement — often the first responders to interact with victims — to investigate these cases without depending on federal authorities and to prosecute human trafficking cases in state courts.[15]

Increased involvement of state and local law enforcement is critical because they handle the bulk of criminal cases in the United States. Even before the passage of state anti-trafficking legislation, federal law enforcement requested that state and local officers "be the eyes and ears for [federal law enforcement in] recognizing, uncovering and responding to circumstances that may appear to be routine street crime, but may ultimately turn out to be a human trafficking case."[16] In fact, in a survey of state and local law enforcement personnel, 32 percent of respondents indicated that they identified many of their human trafficking cases when they were investigating other crimes.[17]

Despite this increased involvement, reports show that fewer trafficking cases have been identified and prosecuted than would be expected given current estimates.[18] This has led to speculation that either incidents of human trafficking are significantly overestimated or government officials and law enforcement agencies are not effectively confronting the problem.[19]

NIJ funded Amy Farrell and her colleagues at Northeastern University and researchers at the Urban Institute to examine the challenges facing state and local criminal justice systems when investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases. The researchers conducted a 12-site study that included in-depth interviews with 166 practitioners from federal, state and local law enforcement; state and federal prosecutors; victim service providers; and other stakeholders. The researchers also analyzed data from 140 closed human trafficking case files[20] to determine which characteristics of human trafficking cases attract local law enforcement's attention and predict adjudicatory outcomes.[21] Although the study is not nationally representative, the findings can help us understand why the number of human trafficking cases is lower than estimates of the problem might predict. Here is what the researchers found:

Identification challenges

The study confirmed that identifying victims is particularly challenging because perpetrators hide and move their victims. The interviews also revealed that the cultural and organizational characteristics of police agencies can hinder efforts to identify victims and that local law enforcement and communities generally do not make combating human trafficking a priority.[22] This often means fewer resources for training and staff for labor-intensive investigations.

The cases the researchers reviewed had primarily been identified through reactive approaches, illustrating that officers generally wait for victims to self-identify or for community tips about potential victimization to be received before they launch investigations. The researchers found that law enforcement uniformly lamented the lack of identified labor trafficking cases, suggesting that although officers believe labor trafficking is occurring in local communities, they have not received information about these cases. The use of proactive strategies to identify trafficking cases was uncommon and rarely involved cooperation between law enforcement and prosecutors.

Investigation challenges

Researchers in the Northeastern University/Urban Institute study reviewed 140 closed trafficking case files to determine whether the evidence supported a charge of human trafficking as outlined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and its reauthorizations.[23] The review found evidence of human trafficking in the majority of the cases. Among the indicators found were threatening to harm or actually physically or nonphysically harming the victim; demeaning and demoralizing the victim; dominating, intimidating and controlling the victim; and disorienting and depriving the victim of alternatives.[24] However, few suspects were actually charged with human trafficking offenses.[25] Even when they received specific human trafficking cases, prosecutors were more likely to prosecute using laws with which they, judges and juries were more familiar, such as promoting prostitution, kidnapping or fraud.

Interviews with practitioners confirmed what other research has shown: Victims were reluctant to cooperate with investigations because they either feared retaliation from their trafficker or distrusted law enforcement. In some cases, because jurisdictions lacked specialized services for trafficking victims, such as secure housing, law enforcement officers arrested victims to keep them from returning to their traffickers or to help them feel safe from pimps and thereby encourage the victims' cooperation in the investigation. Although the arrest was often for the victim's protection, it essentially resulted in the victim being treated like a suspect. These victims may feel revictimized and experience the same negative emotions they experienced in the trafficking situation, thus adding to often pre-existing distrust of law enforcement.[26]

Specialized services for trafficking victims are all the more critical because victims' loyalty to their traffickers may stem, in part, from feelings that they have no practical alternatives to their current situation.

One of the law enforcement practitioners interviewed explained the potential impact that additional resources could have on combating trafficking by providing victims with a viable alternative:

We have nothing to say, "Hey, I can put you up in … this place. And I can help you get an education. And I can help you get a job. And I can help you take care of your kids." You know, we don't have that. If I had that, man … we could stop prostitution.

Interviews with law enforcement officers also revealed that some officers had negative stereotypes about the people commonly found to be victims of human trafficking, especially those involved with prostitution and those with drug addictions. Some reported the use of derogatory terms for victims, and one officer said, "Victims are often unreliable, often addicted to drugs. It's probably easier to prosecute homicides because the victims are dead."

Law enforcement commonly lacked training on how to investigate human trafficking cases. The researchers found that in many study sites, vice investigators were conducting human trafficking investigations using standard vice investigation strategies geared toward drug and gambling crimes, further reducing the likelihood of a successful trafficking investigation.

Additionally, many trafficking cases are cross-jurisdictional, and agencies reported that cases often fell apart when they lacked the resources or institutional support to gather evidence or conduct interviews in other states. Importantly, officers indicated that they could not dedicate time and resources to investigate cases they felt would not result in prosecution.

Therefore, the reluctance of prosecutors to file charges in human trafficking cases created a negative feedback loop, in some instances diminishing an investigator's determination to identify and investigate these challenging cases.

Prosecution challenges

Because state statutes on human trafficking are relatively new, there is a lack of precedent and case law, and prosecutors operate with little or no guidance on prosecutorial techniques or other resources, such as sample jury instructions. Many prosecutors interviewed in the study by Farrell and colleagues said they were concerned about losing high-profile cases (and damaging their reputation), and so they prosecuted cases using a charge other than human trafficking. A local prosecutor said, "[T]hat was sort of the unwritten policy of the office: 'Why bother with this goofy human trafficking statute, just charge other crimes that you are more comfortable with and that you have used in the past.'" Prosecutors also reported that victims were often reluctant to testify or did not seem credible, and most state and local agencies lacked the institutional infrastructure (such as a specialized human trafficking unit) to support prosecution.

Although few of the cases studied resulted in suspects being charged for human trafficking offenses, offenders were held accountable in 69 percent of the cases, in that they were prosecuted for different offenses, such as rape, kidnapping or pandering. However, this poses an obvious problem in crime reporting. For example, the 2008 reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act mandates that the FBI collect information about human trafficking offenses through the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program. But unless state and local law enforcement routinely investigate human trafficking cases as such, crime data reported through the UCR will inevitably undercount instances of human trafficking. Underreporting could be more harmful than no reporting at all, particularly when agencies tie funding decisions to what the crime data show are the most prevalent problems.

The Road Ahead

Human trafficking is believed to be a growing crime, fueled by low risk and the potential for high monetary gain. Although we still need reliable estimates of nationwide prevalence, it is clear that human trafficking occurs on a large scale within U.S. borders.[27]

Identifying, understanding and combating this inherently covert form of modern-day slavery requires robust research to shed light on an otherwise obscure problem. To further this body of research, NIJ recently awarded grants to study:

  • The underreporting of sex trafficking victims who are minors
  • The role that gangs play in sex trafficking
  • Effective counter-trafficking legislation, law enforcement processes and demand-reduction strategies
  • Strategies to stabilize and integrate adult survivors of human trafficking in the U.S.

NIJ Journal No. 271, February 2013
NCJ 240701

About the Author

Maureen Q. McGough is an attorney and international research partnership specialist in NIJ's Office of Research Partnerships.

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