Sex Trafficking

Here's What We Actually Know About Human Trafficking In America

Part one: no evidence that increasing penalties is linked to an increase in arrests or prosecutions.


Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice quietly released a report they had commissioned on "legislative, legal, and public opinions strategies that work" to combat human trafficking in America. What emerges from it is an interesting portrait of a solution in search of a crisis. 

The comprehensive report was conducted by political science professors Vanessa Bouche and Dana Wittmer, of Texas Christian University and Colorado College respectively, and Northeastern University criminology professor Amy Farrell. It's divided into three parts: evaluating how state counter-trafficking laws impact human trafficking arrests and prosecutions; analyzing state-level human trafficking cases; and understanding public opinion on human trafficking. I'm going to highlight the key results from each section in a series of three blog posts, starting with the relationship between state counter-trafficking measures and trafficking arrests and prosecutions. 

Looking at data between 2003 and 2012, researchers identified 3,225 human trafficking suspects in America, including state and federal cases. As I'll explore more in the next section, human-trafficking charges were dismissed in more than half of these cases, although nearly three-quarters eventually led to a conviction on some charges—generally offenses related to prostitution, pimping, and pandering. 

Regarding various types of state counter-trafficking laws, the measures most connected with an increase in human-trafficking arrests were those mandating the posting of the National Human-Trafficking Hotline Number in various public places. Posting the hotline was not, however, associated with an increase in trafficking prosecutions, suggesting that many of the "tips" provided to the hotline were insufficient or wrong. 

Laws creating state human-trafficking task forces were most associated with an increase in prosecutions of human trafficking suspects, on either human trafficking charges or for other criminal offenses. 

Though criminaliation-centered laws have been "the dominant legislative response" by states, there was no evidence that increased penalties were linked to an increase in arrests or prosecutions. 

Nonetheless, many states increased minimum and maximum penalties for human trafficking offenses between 2003-2012. As of 2012, almost all states had set mandatory minimum prison sentences for at least some human trafficking offenses; only 17 had none. (Since that time, states have continued to rack up penalties and introduce new mandatory minimums; see more here.) In general, penalties were most stringent for sex trafficking of a minor and least stringent for labor trafficking an adult.

In some states, the minimum penalty for human trafficking is 20 years in prison, while in others the maximum is just five to 10 years. The states with the harshest mandatory minimum were…

For sex-trafficking a minor: Alaska, Vermont, and Virginia (20 years); Louisiana, New York, and Tennessee (15 years)

For sex-trafficking an adult: Virginia (20 years); Alaska and New York (15 years); Ohio and Georgia (10 years); Kansas (9 years)

For labor-trafficking a minor: Vermont (20 years); Kansas (12 years); Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania (10 years)

For labor-trafficking an adult: Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, and Ohio (10 years); Kansas (9 years), and Colorado (10 years)

"The severity of the criminal penalty is not significant in any of the models, indicating that the harshness of the criminal penalty has no impact on the number of arrests and prosecutions for human trafficking," the researchers wrote. 

The 12 states with highest number of human trafficking arrests, combining both state and federal numbers, were: Texas (526 arrests), Florida (336), California (299), New York (227), Ohio (191), Washington (130), Georgia (105), Maryland (99), Oregon (84), Minnesota (83), New Mexico (78), and Massachusetts (72). 

The 12 states with the highest number of state-level human trafficking arrests were: California (58 arrests), Texas (41), Florida (29), Washington (27), Ohio (21), Massachusetts (20), Georgia (19), Illinois (18), Oklahoma (13), New Mexico (12), Michigan (11), and Minnesota (11)

The states with lowest number of human trafficking arrests overall (combining federal and state data) were: New Hampshire, with zero; West Virginia, with one; Idaho, with two; Arkansas, Montana, Delaware, and Wyoming with four; Alaska and Vermont with five; and Maine, Rhode Island, and North Dakota with eight. 

Fourteen states saw zero state-level human trafficking arrests between 2003-2012: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Another 19 states arrested less than 10 people for state human-trafficking offenses over the decade. South Dakota, Utah, and Vermont each made one human-trafficking arrest; Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Rhode Island each made two; Alabama and North Carolina each made three arrests; Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Oregon, and Tennessee each made four arrests; and Maryland and New York each arrested five people for human trafficking.