Why are We Prosecuting Sex Trafficking Victims?

When it comes to politics, Americans can’t seem to agree on many things. A simple look at our current Congress could tell you that. However, there are some issues that strike people from all different positions as overtly wrong. Human trafficking is one of those issues.

 Human trafficking is a form of modern day slavery and a horrific reality in the world today. Unfortunately, there are not many credible estimates about the true size of the problem. Worldwide, girls, boys, men and women are tricked, seduced, and threatened into forced servitude of different types, with the most infamous being sex slavery. And this isn’t just an international problem. A huge part of this tragedy takes place in the US, with an estimated 20,000 children forced into prostitution by human trafficking networks each year.

While this is a terrible tragedy, there are efforts being made to put an end to these crimes and bring the perpetrators to justice. Human trafficking has received a great deal of publicity recently, with many groups and individuals trying to raise awareness in addition to law enforcement and government attempting to crack down on traffickers. A few months ago, several bills passed through the House of Representatives that were targeted at slowing human trafficking in the US. These efforts should be applauded, however there is another case of injustice in the issue of human trafficking that is often overlooked. It’s the way trafficking victims are treated by the criminal justice system or in many cases, the juvenile court system.

When the traffickers are caught and victims rescued, the laws governing these situations are not always just. Victims are often originally prosecuted as criminals in many states, which is an obvious problem, since the courts are now punishing the very people they are trying to protect. Even if these prosecuted victims manage to overcome their traumatic background while surviving life in the justice system, they now have a criminal record when they attempt to re-enter society. In 2011, the Criminal Court of Queens County in New York addressed this problem saying, “victims of sex trafficking who are forced into prostitution are frequently arrested for prostitution-related offenses and saddled with the criminal record. They are blocked from decent jobs and other prospects of rebuilding their lives. Even after they escape from sex trafficking, the criminal record victimizes them for life”.

On top of this, many of these victims are under the age of 18. In the case of sex trafficking, this leads to the question of whether or not a minor can be prosecuted for an offense he or she is not even old enough to consent to. The immediate response is often to simply decriminalize the act of underage prostitution entirely. However, as the State of New Jersey found out when it tried to do so in 2011, this problem is more complicated than it seems. When New Jersey attempted to implement this strategy of decriminalization, they discovered that they could no longer prosecute the pimps or johns either, because they had inadvertently decriminalized underage pimping.

When attempting to rectify these injustices, there is an obvious role for the government. Traffickers intentionally target victims that fit certain characteristics, which make them vulnerable. Those most at risk are youth who are homeless, runaways, members of the foster care system, and children who have been abused in the past. Much of the work to combat this must be done by government at the state level. Since each state has a unique set of criminal justice and juvenile justice procedures, each state must develop and implement an approach to tackling these problems.

One successful approach has been the implementation of Safe Harbor laws. These laws allow states to treat victims of trafficking differently than they would other offenders. For example, trafficking victims that are underage may be sent to residential rehabilitative programs instead of simply being assigned to a juvenile correctional facility. However, as of March 2014, only twelve states had fully implemented Safe Harbour laws. Another way of protecting these victims is to initially prosecute them but include provisions for trafficking victims that allow for criminal charges to be vacated from their records. New York was the first state to do this; now 13 other states have done so.

In addition to the government, there is also a role for non-profit organizations, which are often backed by churches and supported by individual volunteers. These groups come into play especially in response to caring for trafficking victims. As mentioned before, victims often end up in foster care or the juvenile justice system, exactly where they were targeted by traffickers in the first place. There is a real need for community-based groups who can help care for, minister to, and love these victims. In fact, some estimates claim that there are less than 100 beds across the country that are specifically designated for the thousands of trafficking victims being identified every year. Making matters worse, the National Survey of Residential Programs for Victims of Sex Trafficking records that 28 stateshave no residential programs for victims of sex trafficking and have no plans to open any.

One example of a faith based organization doing its best to fill this need is The Samaritan Women in Baltimore, Md. Women who have suffered as victims of trafficking learn farming and culinary skills there as well as receive help in completing their high school or college education. The combined efforts of groups like this one alongside of state governments exercising their legitimate authority to protect their citizens can go a long way towards making right the treatment of trafficking victims once they have been rescued.  

-Nate Frierson is a senior at Covenant College.