Human trafficking is a big yet commonly overlooked problem in the United States and abroad. Each year, roughly 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders, according to the Department of State, with about 17,500 into the United States. Despite an uptick in laws aimed at addressing this problem, U.S. law enforcement and state prosecutors haven’t identified or prosecuted as many cases as expected given the large number of cases, leaving many to question why. In a recent report, however, experts at the Urban Institute and Northeastern University shed some light on why so many cases seem to be falling through the cracks.

Researchers analyzed 140 closed human trafficking cases, reviewed 530 incident reports of related crimes, and interviewed 166 law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and other criminal justice stakeholders, and found that only 7% of cases resulted in a state or federal sex trafficking charge, 9% in a sex trafficking of a minor charge, and 2% in a labor trafficking charge—even though most of the cases fit the federal definition of human trafficking.

Why? The report offers a few suggestions:

Lack of cooperation from victims: One of the biggest problems police face when investigating human trafficking cases is lack of cooperation from victims. Officers reported that victims’ statements are the most important element of a human trafficking investigation, but victims are often hesitant to provide one for fear of being treated as an offender, which, according to the report, happens frequently. Other victims stay quiet due to fear of retaliation by the trafficker or for lack of an alternative, meaning that they rely on their trafficker for housing and work.

Lack of resources: Local law enforcement officials often have insufficient resources to train, staff, and investigate human trafficking cases, especially patrol officers and other first responders most likely to encounter human trafficking situations. The report also found that a lack of trauma informed interviewing techniques and foreign language capacity slowed down identification of cases.

Lack of legal guidance and precedent: Even if the law enforcement officials are successful in identifying victims, state prosecutors face huge difficulties in pursuing cases. Lack of legal guidance and precedent was continually cited as a major deterrent to prosecuting cases using state human trafficking statutes. Prosecutors who did accept the cases were more likely to prosecute using existing laws that they were more familiar with, often in fear of losing high-profile cases. Prosecutors also faced similar problems with victim cooperation. An overwhelming amount of prosecutors felt that labor trafficking cases should be prosecuted at the federal level, mostly due to the likely undocumented status of the victim.

To help improve the identification, investigation, and prosecution of human trafficking cases, the report lays out a few recommendations:

  • Awareness-raising about the need to prioritize the problem of human trafficking
  • Creating long-term support for victims, including health and mental health care, education, job training, and secure housing
  • Providing state-specific training for law enforcement officials, giving information on the state’s human trafficking statutes, best practices, and information about the impact of trauma on victims
  • Forming units of specialized personnel to handle sex and labor trafficking cases.
  • Creating state-specific toolkits for prosecutors, including information on updated state human trafficking laws, legal strategies, and contact information for local prosecutors who have experience in such cases.

Although the U.S. government continues to take steps to combat human trafficking, more work clearly needs to be done to help victims escape this modern-day slavery and to help prevent future cases of trafficking.

Photo by Greh Fox.