A Look at Human Trafficking in US Courts

Just Ask blog banner a look at human trafficking in US Courts

On April 10, 2019, the Human Trafficking Institute published its second annual report on the status of human trafficking cases in US courts.  The 2018 Federal Human Trafficking Report is a tool the human trafficking community can use to see how the federal system is addressing this growing problem.  This report paints a picture of the slow, but steady increases in the number of cases the federal government prosecutes.  At the same time, when we compare the numbers with other estimates of human trafficking victims, we can identify places where the prosecution data doesn’t match the reality of human trafficking and where we have room to improve.  

The history behind the Victims of Human Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000

To provide a bit of historical context, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 was a landmark piece of legislation.  It declared for the first time in US law that trafficking in people is a federal crime with heavy penalties, that victims are entitled to restitution, and created the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Person.  The 2018 Federal Human Trafficking Report shows that in 2000, the US government only initiated four human trafficking cases. Since that time, prosecutions and awareness of human trafficking as a major crime have only risen.  In 2018, the government initiated 171 cases. While we still have a long way to go, prosecuting human traffickers and implementing punishments is a major piece of fighting human trafficking. Another statistic that points out improvements is that in 2018, 31 buyers were named as the defendants on a trafficking case, compared to only one in 2008.  This means that being complicit in trafficking as a buyer is starting to have possible legal ramifications as well. Historically trafficking victims have born most of the consequences of raids, so it is promising to see buyers held accountable.

Human Trafficking Report, what’s in the data?

The Federal Human Trafficking Report provides a host of interesting data about human trafficking cases.  To start, the researchers divide the cases into two categories: criminal cases and civil cases. Criminal cases are filed by the government with the end goal of punishment, where civil cases are filed by private parties and seek restitution.  Last year, 88.2% of the active human trafficking cases in the US court system were criminal cases and the other 11.8% were civil. Of the criminal cases initiated by the government, 95% were sex trafficking cases, while only 5% were labor trafficking.  The report later reveals that labor cases made up 88% of civil suits. These numbers already show an avenue where the United States could improve its prosecution of trafficking. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s most recent statistics, 71% of their cases were sex trafficking cases and 14.5% were labor.  This indicates that the US is not prosecuting labor trafficking with the same zeal that they prosecute sex trafficking, leaving private parties and labor trafficking victims to seek restitution instead of putting labor traffickers in jail.  

Other interesting statistics include:

  • Criminal defendants used the Internet to solicit buyers in 88% of active sex trafficking cases.  Backpage was responsible for 300 of those cases.
  • Domestic servants are the most commonly prosecuted labor trafficking case, followed by food service/ restaurants, farming/ agriculture, and then construction.  
  • The most common tactic used against victims of sex trafficking to encourage cooperation is physical violence
  • The most common tactic used to exploit labor trafficking victims is withholding pay.  
  • 81% of sex trafficking cases involved being sold out of a hotel, and one hotel was prosecuted in 2018.
  • 99% of active cases had an individual named as a defendant.  2 of the cases named an entity: one hotel and one farm.
  • 96% of the cases resolved in 2018 ended in a conviction.

A few areas stand out as somewhere where we can improve in how human trafficking cases are prosecuted.  As we mentioned before, labor trafficking cases are disproportionately low when it comes to how many are going through the court systems.  Similarly, 94% of victims on active cases were female. Last year only 3 male victims were at the center of new cases. The National Human Trafficking Hotline’s most recent data shows that 14% of victims in their cases were male.  This means cases with men as the victim are less likely to be taken on by the government. Another area where progress can be made as we fight human trafficking in our courts is increasing the number of cases where restitution is paid to victims.  According to the report, “A total of 172 defendants were convicted of a human trafficking offense that triggered the [Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act’s] mandatory restitution provision. Of these defendants, courts ordered 40.1% to pay restitution. This is a 63.7% increase from 2017 when courts ordered only 24.5% of defendants to pay restitution. Notably, federal courts still failed to order mandatory restitution against 59.9% of the defendants.”

As a community, our efforts against human trafficking are still in the learning phases.  Resources with data like the Federal Human Trafficking Report are important to see how far we’ve come and informed our path forward.  

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