Trafficking – The Government’s Role

“There are more people in slavery today than at any other time in human history.” — Free the Slaves

Approximately 30 million sex and labor slaves live in our free, democratic world; human trafficking is a $32 billion industry; 1 million children are exploited for commercial sex every year; 14,500-17,500 slaves are brought into the United States annually; and 800,000 people are trafficked across borders in an average year. These are the figures no one wants to see, the numbers we’d rather not know.

In theory, I could use this space to shock you. For example, 4% of Mauritania’s population is enslaved and 40% of India’s 2.3 million female prostitutes are younger than 18. I could also add that foreign diplomats, primarily from the Middle East and Asia, keep slaves in the United States. Unfortunately, these facts in and of themselves won’t solve the problem. Specifics are key. As such, instead of spouting numbers, I will present a plan for government action — what I think the U.S. government, on the federal and state levels, should do to fight human trafficking.

I’m going to focus on several potential pieces of legislation; my ideas come from the Polaris Project, a top-tier, anti-human trafficking organization. They are as follows: expanding asset forfeiture in human trafficking cases; training law enforcement officers to recognize and combat trafficking; forming human trafficking commissions or task forces; passing Safe Harbor laws; and vacating convictions for sex trafficking victims.

Asset forfeiture does not demand much explanation. In effect, laws that allow asset forfeiture in human trafficking cases give courts the right “to seize the ill-gotten gains of traffickers, as well as property they used to facilitate the crime.” Putting the criminal in jail but allowing him to keep his property is tantamount to a slap on the wrist: he has to spend a little time behind bars but keeps his ‘earnings’. The federal government legalized asset forfeiture in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, first passed in 2000. However, “federal law enforcement officials are limited in their ability to prosecute perpetrators at the state and local level, both for jurisdictional and practical reasons” (Polaris). Thus, in order to ensure justice is served, the 13 states that have yet to pass forfeiture laws must do so immediately.

Training programs are another common sense policy. Nevertheless, 21 states and D.C. have yet to approve “a statute that requires or encourages law enforcement to be trained…how to identify victims of human trafficking and investigate trafficking cases.” I cannot overstate the importance of these programs. Without them, ‘prostitutes’ become just that: people engaged in illegal sexual activity. There is no back-story or questioning, no suspicion that this person may be a victim rather than a perpetrator. We must step up to the plate and train our officers to see the difference.

Third, every state should have a Human Trafficking Commission or Task Force, by which investigators, prosecutors, survivors, “relevant” government agencies, and more can work together on this issue. Today, 31 states and D.C. do not.

Safe Harbor laws are simultaneously the most important and least-popular pieces of legislation on my list (only 12 states meet Polaris’ requirements). Young sex trafficking victims are subjected to abuse and exploitation, yet because prostitution is illegal, they often face prosecution. I’ll let Polaris describe what Safe Harbor laws ought to do:

Such legal protections should: (i) define trafficked and commercially sexually exploited children as victims of abuse and neglect, triggering a child protective response; and (ii) grant immunity from prosecution for prostitution-related offenses for any person under 18 and establish the use of safe houses as an alternative means to house these children, rather than juvenile detention; or (iii) divert arrested children from juvenile delinquency proceedings to child protection proceedings where they will have access to specialized services.

It is absolutely imperative that every state in this country passes a comprehensive Safe Harbor law. The federal government has already done so. However, state laws do not match up, and thus we risk denying these children the help they deserve.

Vacating convictions for sex trafficking victims is the last point I’ll mention. 27 states and D.C. have not passed “statutes that permit courts to vacate convictions for prostitution-related offenses and other non violent crimes that victims of human trafficking were forced to commit.” In short, victims’ ‘criminal histories’ make life very difficult (it’s much harder to get a job, for example). Their records fail to mention that they were forced to commit a crime they did not want to commit. These people were abused and trafficked; it is wrong to treat them like criminals.

In sum, I have 5 suggestions: legalize asset forfeiture in trafficking cases; expand training programs; create Human Trafficking Commissions or Task Forces; pass Safe Harbor laws; and vacate convictions for sex trafficking victims. Although these laws will not end the human trade, they are a step in the right direction, and every step we take forward is another we refuse to take back.