PROJECTPerceptions of Justice



Survivors of human trafficking experience very little control when it comes to legal proceedings against their traffickers. Their opinions of the criminal justice system may have been influenced by previous negative experiences with criminal justice system actors, and what “justice” means to them can differ from what “justice” means in the context of the law. In fact, what limited research exists on the subject suggests that survivors of trafficking might not necessarily want traditional criminal sanctions imposed on their traffickers.

The Bending Towards Justice: Perceptions of Justice among Human Trafficking Survivors study is the first to ask survivors of human trafficking how they perceive their interactions with the justice system and how they define justice in their own terms. Drawing from interviews with 80 survivors of labor and sex trafficking and 100 system actors, including law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and service providers, this study provides insight into what does and doesn’t work in the criminal justice system when delivering justice to survivors and explores what could be done differently.

Several alternative forms of justice have been shown to be viable additions or alternatives to traditional criminal justice. Three models show promise when applied to human trafficking cases: (1) procedural justice, (2) restorative justice, and (3) transitional justice:

Procedural justice models maintain that survivors’ perceptions of justice are influenced by opportunities to be involved in the criminal justice process and share their story.

Restorative justice models argue that nonpunitive responses like acknowledgment of wrongdoing, payment of reparations, or apologies from traffickers could significantly affect perceptions of justice.

Transitional justice models suggest that larger community efforts to acknowledge harms that have occurred and prevent them from happening again, like awareness campaigns, provide a sense of justice.

Learn more: “Alternative Forms of Justice for Human Trafficking Survivors: Considering Procedural, Restorative, and Transitional Justice

Survivors interviewed for the study expressed that for them, “justice” was more about prevention than punishment. Survivors of sex trafficking often recommended implementing educational programs to teach traffickers about the pain inflicted by their actions. Survivors of labor trafficking often suggested implementing visa restrictions that limit the ability of employers who have been proven abusive to bring more workers into the country. For all survivors, recovery—the idea of moving on, feeling safe, and regaining control over their lives—was a crucial part of “justice.”

The skepticism expressed by survivors that the existing criminal justice system would contribute to justice and healing was echoed by most stakeholders. Criminal justice stakeholders, however, emphasized the importance of the system for ensuring public safety and preventing future trafficking. All agreed that the criminal justice system, in its current form, is not designed to maximize its ability to support survivors’ recovery, raising the question, what models could provide justice in a way that does contribute positively to the healing processes of survivors of trafficking?

Procedural justice, restorative justice, and transitional justice were identified as alternative models that could apply to cases of human trafficking and either complement or compensate for existing forms of justice. While previous research on these models is mostly limited to their effects on people accused of crimes, these models may offer promising alternatives to positively affect survivor perceptions of justice, help survivors heal from their past victimization, and reintroduce control for survivors within, alongside, or outside the current system.

Read more about this project:

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center