Urban Wire Funding services for human trafficking victims is imperative for policing the crime
Colleen Owens
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As congressional appropriators work through the summer to legislate spending for government agencies and programs in 2014, one item that could easily fly under their radars is our nation’s responsibility to help victims of human trafficking.

President Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget request includes $10.5 million for the Justice Department to fund services for victims of human trafficking, $500,000 less than the amount included in the fiscal 2013 continuing resolution.

Obama also included $10 million in new funding for the Department of Health and Human Services to provide services for domestic victims of trafficking, train service providers, and invest in data collection, research, and evaluation.

Lawmakers should consider funding these items, and even adding to them, because research tells us that the baseline is not enough.

My colleagues at the Urban Institute and Northeastern University and I spent two years researching human trafficking in the United States, and we saw, at every site we studied, that victims services were insufficient to support identification of trafficking victims and move their cases through the court systems.

We learned that a vicious circle perpetuates a common misperception that human trafficking is something that happens predominantly outside U.S. borders, not in our own backyards. It works like this:

  • Police are generally reactive to the issue of trafficking—that is, they generally respond to distress calls. But for a variety of reasons, victims of labor and sex trafficking rarely self-identify as victims.
  • As a result, law enforcement agencies don’t think trafficking is a problem in their community, resources aren’t devoted to enforcing nascent state human trafficking laws, specialized services aren’t funded, and very few cases are discovered and charged.
  • Prosecutors, therefore, rarely have human trafficking cases to take to court. And when human trafficking cases are referred, prosecutors decline them, or charge them as lesser crimes, such as pandering or alien harboring.
  • With few convictions on the books, the cycle continues and the public never understands the full scope of human trafficking in their communities. And with no public outcry, police and policymakers don’t prioritize resources for fighting this insidious crime.

The people who suffer most because of this misperception are the victims. There are more of them than official statistics would have us believe, and it’s likely few are getting the services they need.

While the federal government makes some high-profile human trafficking cases every year, many more don’t rise to the federal level.

So, if many of the problems are happening on the state and local level, why is it important for the federal government to step up?

The answer is the federal government sets the tone. It wasn’t until after the enactment of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 that states even began establishing their own laws against human trafficking. The challenge we face now is to ensure those laws are used and to demand more for victims.

Indeed, most cases we studied that met the definition of human trafficking were dropped or charged as lesser crimes. One of the most commonly cited reasons was a lack of specialized services for victims.

And here are some more reasons why lawmakers should consider greater investment in specialized services for victims as they debate, amend, and vote on the nation’s spending priorities:

  • Victims of human trafficking are viewed by police and prosecutors as the most critical component to gathering evidence and prosecuting a human trafficking case. They say it’s nearly impossible to move a case forward without victim cooperation and where services were lacking, so was collaboration.
  • Human trafficking prosecutions are often lengthy, sometimes up to two years or more. Services must be in place to take these considerations into account.
  • Typically victims are economically dependent on their traffickers and afraid to speak out against them for fear of retribution, and not being able to support themselves or get support elsewhere. Lack of shelter was the most commonly cited service challenge across study sites.
  • Cases we reviewed were dropped from investigation and prosecution when victims ran away, or moved to seek specialized services that were only available out of state.
  • A lack of specialized services was a big reason criminal justice professionals we interviewed said they had to arrest or deport victims. Traffickers often use the threat of arrest or deportation to deter victims from initiating contact with the police. Our study found that 35 percent of victims were arrested by law enforcement.
  • A shortage of linguistic and culturally appropriate services stymied the number and type of victims identified, and cases brought forward, at all the sites we studied, even those with specialized task forces.

Evidence from our study calls into question the claims of those who believe low numbers of prosecuted cases and identified victims equals low prevalence.

If we are committed to living in a country without human trafficking, we must ensure that laws on the books become laws in action. And that can’t happen without comprehensive services for victims of human trafficking in every community.

Status quo funding will yield status quo results. We’ll continue identifying victims and prosecuting cases at the “tip of the iceberg.”


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Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Crime and justice analytics Human trafficking Policing and community safety
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center