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Director's Message: Developing a Comprehensive Response to Human Trafficking


As Attorney General Lynch has repeatedly said: human trafficking is modern day slavery. This grievous practice exists in contemporary society, and the U.S. is unfortunately no exception. National and worldwide campaigns have raised awareness and attracted attention and resources to this problem, but many questions remain. We still need to know more, for example, about how best to prevent and respond to human trafficking while simultaneously supporting victims and survivors.

As we pause on World Day Against Trafficking in Persons to reflect on what we can do to help victims and survivors, I would like to give my sincere thanks to these researchers for their efforts to help develop effective responses to human trafficking in the U.S.

The National Institute of Justice has long invested in research about human trafficking. We have identified the future directions of trafficking research by hosting international experts[1] and have shared information on how science can help improve the nation’s response to human trafficking.[2] These activities have synthesized what we know, and don’t know, about human trafficking; but in today’s message, I’d like to address two recent studies that focus on what to do to stop trafficking and mitigate its impact. The first study describes the ways in which legislation increases our ability to identify, arrest, and prosecute human traffickers; the second study explores how best to support and stabilize victims after rescue.

In the first study, researchers from Colorado College joined colleagues from Northeastern University and Texas Christian University to analyze the effectiveness of state-level anti-trafficking legislation. They found that when the law requires state investment in combating human trafficking, through such fiscal or bureaucratic measures as victim assistance, task forces, training, hotline publication and reporting, human trafficking arrests generally increased.

The most important legislative measure for increasing arrests was the requirement to post the National Human Trafficking Hotline number[3] in public places. The strongest predictor for increasing prosecution of human trafficking suspects was the use of task forces.

Only two civil remedies were found to be effective: (1) safe harbor laws and (2) provisions for civil action. Safe harbor laws provide immunity to minors who are victims of sex trafficking and forced to commit offenses during their trafficking. The immunity likely improves prosecutors’ ability to work with minor victims and pursue prosecution against their traffickers. Making provisions that allow victims to seek damages from their traffickers also likely increases their willingness to cooperate in prosecutions.

Interestingly, the data showed that harsher criminal penalties do not predict an increase in arrests or prosecution. The report, therefore, recommends that states adopt comprehensive laws, including elements of state action, safe harbor, and civil action, to increase arrests and prosecution.

These findings are potentially transformative. They indicate that the severity of the penalty is not nearly as important as the comprehensive support framework accompanying criminalization.

The report also contains results of an evaluation of public opinion on human trafficking and how best to encourage the issue’s prominence in public consciousness. Read the full report (pdf, 95 pages).

In the second study, researchers from Georgetown University examined comprehensive case management services delivered to foreign-born trafficking survivors. The researchers looked at a program administered by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The program aimed to coordinate, arrange, monitor, and advocate for a comprehensive set of services specific to each trafficking survivor. It is no surprise that victims of such a horrific crime have significant needs, including but not limited to secure housing, health care, child care, employment, and civil and criminal legal representation.

Researchers explored a number of variables to determine what aspects of interventions were associated with a survivor’s “prospects for long-term social and economic self-sufficiency.” They found that each visit with a case manager provided a 20-percent greater chance of a trafficking victim experiencing improved stability, and the likelihood continued to improve with each additional visit. Further, the number of specific needs identified at the outset that were met over the course of the intervention was tied to improved stabilization; the more needs met through intervention, the greater the odds of improved stabilization.

Researchers also capitalized on the rich demographic data in the database, assessing rates of stability improvement across age, gender, and region of origin, while also analyzing provider characteristics. 

As we pause on World Day Against Trafficking in Persons (July 30, 2016) to reflect on what we can do to help victims and survivors, I would like to give my sincere thanks to these researchers for their efforts to help develop effective responses to human trafficking in the U.S.

[note 1] See Radicalization and Violent Extremism: Lessons Learned From Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. (pdf, 38 pages).

[note 2] See Science Versus Slavery: The National Institute of Justice and the Future Directions of Knowledge Put to the Service of the Anti-Trafficking Movement.

[note 3] The National Human Trafficking Resource Center maintains a 24/7 hotline for tips on possible human trafficking cases. If you believe you have information about a potential trafficking situation, please call 1-888-373-7888 or visit https://traffickingresourcecenter.org/report-trafficking.