A sinister industry has crept across the globe and into the United States—the buying, selling, and enslaving of human beings for sex.
In the shadows, the dark world of human trafficking has lived and, tragically, grown. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that nearly 200,000 unique incidents of sexual exploitation of minors happen annually in the U.S., and the State Department estimates anywhere from 14,500 to 17,500 individuals are trafficked into the United States each year—not counting those trafficked inside the country.
These are frightening numbers and law enforcement is underequipped to challenge the growing industry. America at large remains unaware of the problem, as is the American faith community. The grisly and perverse details of human trafficking make it a hard reality to stomach and confront. But this must change—and indeed, such change has already begun. More and more people of faith are coming together to protect life and innocence, however they are threatened.
A major part of protecting these victims is recognizing that their situation sometimes results from a deep and systematic failure of our nation’s justice system. Few of the thousands of victims of trafficking ever receive justice. Although the Trafficking Victims Act of 2000 started the process by making trafficking a federal crime, it failed to address the scope and depth of the problem. Of the thousands impacted by human trafficking in 2015, the federal government undertook only 257 prosecutions. According to a 2016 report, there is no standardized method to monitor state and local human trafficking prosecutions.
Sadly our current system often confuses victims with criminals. When sophisticated traffickers coerce their victims into committing crimes, the victims themselves wind up being prosecuted. Few state laws take this distinction into account.
So how are these people slipping through the justice system’s cracks? The answer is complex, but sadly our current system often confuses victims with criminals. When sophisticated traffickers coerce their victims into committing crimes, the victims themselves wind up being prosecuted. Few state laws take this distinction into account.
Without a comprehensive new approach to the problem, we will continue to fail these victims.
On the ground, law enforcement officers must receive the training that enables them to identify trafficking victims. A 2013 study undertaken by Allison L. Cross at McGeorge University Law School recounted the case of Silvia Gonzalez, a Brazilian woman living in the United States who was being exploited by another woman who promised to assist Silvia in getting a green card.
Over two-and-a-half years, Silvia was convicted 86 times either for prostitution or loitering with the intent of prostitution—and at no point did law enforcement realize she was a victim. Proper training can help police identify and assist people like Silvia.
On a legal level, more states should adopt what are known as vacatur laws—laws that permit victims to clear their records of crimes committed during the time they were trafficked. Around 80 percent of employers perform a criminal background check on potential employees, and unjust convictions can keep victims from employment, leaving them susceptible to being trafficked again. Convictions can also keep victims from education, health care, affordable housing, immigration assistance and more.
In 2010, New York took a step in the right direction and passed a vacatur law—however, it only allowed prostitution or loitering for prostitution convictions to be erased. In 2013, Florida passed a more comprehensive law permitting victims to clear any and all crimes from their records. As of May 2016, a total of 31 states have adopted some form of vacatur laws. Such progress is encouraging, but we in the faith community must keep pressing for adoption of laws and effective implementation programs that help protect victims and ensure the justice they deserve.
Lastly, increasing judicial discretion when adjudicating human trafficking cases gives victims a better opportunity at receiving fair treatment. The US Sentencing Commission found that there is at times significant discrepancy between the involvement of a criminal and their sentence. Mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines often strip a judge of the ability to consider cases on an individual basis, forcing the judge into a one-size-fits-all sentencing structure. Allowing judges to actually judge each case will streamline the process and help ensure each victim receives justice and relief in each unique case.
Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon. Just this past December, the “End Modern Slavery Initiative Act” passed as a part of the National Defense Authorization Act. Introduced by Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the legislation allocates federal funds for a non-profit foundation dedicated to cutting human trafficking by 50 percent in key locations across the U.S. and across the globe and permits the foundation to apply for funding from international governments and private donors. Even more recently, President Trump met with various groups that are working to eliminate human trafficking and declared his intention to end this “epidemic.”
Leaders from the “Show Me State” also have joined in the fight to bring justice for victims. Congresswoman Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) recently introduced the bipartisan “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017,” which is designed to empower law enforcement to effectively combat online sex trafficking hubs that profit from and provide safe haven for modern-day slave traders and is up for markup after July 4th. And Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley has taken the lead at the state level by forming a statewide task force specifically intended to combat trafficking. As part of this task force, Hawley’s office will work with local law enforcement to prosecute businesses that serve as fronts for trafficking rings.
Innovations by elected champions such as Senator Corker, Congresswoman Wagner, and Attorney General Hawley are combatting trafficking operations, but officials at the federal and state level must also equip federal and local law enforcement with the resources needed to shut down and prosecute trafficking cases.
President Trump is right to identify trafficking as an epidemic: human trafficking is a cancer that affects us all. Government and law enforcement must work in collaboration with the faith community so that victims of trafficking receive justice. As Americans, we believe that all men and women are created equal and that we all are endowed by our Creator with inherent dignity that is worthy of protection.
Empowered with these convictions, we must recognize this threat, come together, and fight to stop it, always remembering the words of Christ: “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Timothy Head is the executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition.
David LaBahn is the president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.