Are our anti-human trafficking efforts working?

Photo by H. Michael Karshis

Despite the significant attention that human trafficking has received from lawmakers, NGOs and the media, the problem persists. One reason — beyond the clear demand for inexpensive goods and services and for commercial sex — is that our response to the human trafficking problem has largely been reactive, based on the feeling that we needed to do something.

Only now are we getting an idea of how our efforts are working. After more than two years of data collection and analysis, funded by the National Institute of Justice, our research team has produced the first-ever report examining the effectiveness of anti-trafficking strategies — with some surprising results.

In a study of state human trafficking laws enacted between 2003 and 2012, we learned that legislative provisions that invest money and manpower in combatting human trafficking most significantly predict state-level arrests and prosecutions. Some civil remedies, especially civil action and safe harbor provisions, also lead to more arrests and prosecutions in a state.

But what surprised us was that harsher penalties have no impact on the number of arrests and prosecutions for human trafficking across the states. Our results suggest that, while harsher criminal sentences might be an "easy sell" for state legislatures, they do not produce law enforcement outcomes. Instead, when legislatures put state resources behind combatting human trafficking, it signals to law enforcement that this is a priority.

We also looked carefully at the characteristics of the state cases in which suspects were charged specifically under state human trafficking statutes. Although there has been an increase in states prosecuting human trafficking, we found that in over half the cases, the suspects had their human trafficking offense dismissed. Instead, they are being convicted of related crimes such as prostitution, pimping/pandering, sexual abuse or kidnapping. This suggests that prosecutors are falling back on more familiar crimes when prosecuting such cases.

Only a few states are developing expertise in charging offenders, and the number of state human trafficking convictions is likely to remain low until more human trafficking charges are pursued and a legal culture develops that supports upholding these charges, rather than dismissing them in favor of other, more convenient and tangential criminal charges.

A look into Texas specifically yields interesting findings. Texas is the earliest adopter of anti-human trafficking legislation and has among the most comprehensive laws of any other state in the country. Texas has also had more arrests related to human trafficking than any other state, — approximately 526 between 2003 and 2012 — but only 10 percent of these arrests were made by state law enforcement agencies.

Moreover, the vast majority of cases in Texas have been prosecuted at the federal level rather than at the state level. Texas prosecuted only 57 suspects under the trafficking criminalization law between 2003 and 2012. This is despite a national trend starting in 2011 wherein state law enforcement agencies began prosecuting more human trafficking cases than federal law enforcement. The takeaway is that, despite the legal tools being in place, state prosecutions in Texas lag behind federal prosecutions and trends across the rest of the country, even as the state maintains its prominence as a hub of human trafficking in the United States.

We looked at one other important — and little-understood — feature in the fight against human trafficking: public opinion and engagement. It’s the public, after all, generating the demand that makes human trafficking among the most profitable enterprises in the world.

A random sample of 2,000 Americans reveals that 90 percent of Americans understand that human trafficking is a form of slavery and more than 80 percent of the public has “some” or “a lot” of concern about it. A strong majority, however, holds incorrect beliefs about human trafficking, including that victims are almost always female, always requires physical violence, involves mostly illegal immigrants or requires movement across state or national boarders. On average, respondents answered only half of the factual questions correctly.

While the public thinks that human trafficking happens in the United States, they are less willing to say that it happens where they live; 73 percent reported that human trafficking was widespread or occasional in the country, but only 20 percent thought it happens in their local community.

Demographic and behavior variables affect what respondents know, think and feel about human trafficking, too. Those who watched pornography or visited a strip club in the last year reported lower levels of concern about human trafficking. White males — a demographic making up the vast majority of America’s elected officials and law enforcement officers — were the least likely to be concerned about human trafficking and to think it should be a government priority.

But, even for those very concerned with human trafficking, we found that concern does not translate into personal action. Our results indicate that the public has not made the connection between how their own attitudes and behaviors help or hinder the movement against human trafficking.

Until we do, we can’t expect our efforts to stop human trafficking to succeed.

Vanessa Bouché

Assistant professor of political science, Texas Christian University