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For Human Trafficking Survivors, Justice Is More About Healing and Preventing Future Trafficking

Research probes gaps in knowledge of human trafficking survivors’ experiences, explores alternative justice models suited to survivors’ needs.
Date Published
April 7, 2021

What justice looks like for human trafficking victims has long been viewed largely through the lens of the criminal justice system. To be sure, the U.S. Justice Department, like other justice agencies, remains committed to prosecuting and punishing those who illicitly trade in human beings. But research supported by the National Institute of Justice has opened a window to new insights on trafficking justice, including a finding that most trafficking survivors favor prevention and victim healing over incarceration of those who committed the crime.

In a study by the Urban Institute, researchers interviewed 80 labor and sex trafficking survivors across the nation, as well as 100 social service and criminal justice stakeholders, in order to understand their perceptions of justice in human trafficking cases.

The research was centered on interviews of survivors of human trafficking, as well as justice and social service system stakeholders. It offers perspectives on how trafficking survivors, as well as stakeholders, view justice, largely in terms of what would be most helpful to survivors and their recovery. (The research project did not address, more broadly, the impacts of human trafficking on society or the role and purpose of the criminal justice system.)

A pivotal insight was that more than three-quarters of interviewed survivors did not view justice in terms of seeing their trafficker incarcerated. Drilling down, the research team found that domestic survivors of sex trafficking expressly criticized incarceration’s value as a means to achieve accountability for traffickers’ wrongdoing. Although survivors agreed on the importance of holding traffickers accountable, across the board labor and sex trafficking victims saw justice primarily in terms of stopping traffickers from harming others.

Interviewed justice system stakeholders, however, held fast to the view that traffickers must be held accountable through criminal prosecution.

The researchers see potential in three alternative models of justice in the context of human trafficking:

Procedural Justice – Models of procedural justice maintain that the process by which justice is achieved is more important than the case outcome. Procedural justice refers to the idea of fairness in the processes that resolve disputes and allocate resources. The processes engage victims and allow them to tell their story.

Restorative Justice – Models of restorative justice maintain that justice outcomes may not always serve the interests of survivors, individuals who committed offenses, and communities. Restorative justice repairs harm caused by crime, bringing together victims, those who offended against them, and communities to decide how to do that.

Transitional Justice – Transitional justice is rooted in accountability and redress. It favors   responses to crime by the larger community that are more likely to promote peace, provide a sense of justice, and result in longer-term impacts.

Researchers concluded that all three models have the potential to improve survivor perceptions of justice and reform the system in ways that better accommodate the rights and needs of victims.

The researchers said the study is among the most comprehensive to date in terms of the rigor of its examination of justice-related perceptions of trafficking survivors and stakeholders. Its findings could serve to raise awareness among prosecutors and law enforcement of both the pervasiveness of the human trafficking problem and the ready availability of overlooked legal remedies. The findings may help prosecutors better understand the complexity of the relationship between survivors and their traffickers. That better understanding may factor into how prosecutors interact and work with trafficking survivors throughout the course of trials involving traffickers.

Scope of the Problem

Human trafficking is a global blight, with approximately 25 million people subjected to forced labor or forced sexual exploitation globally in 2016.[1] Most trafficking avoids detection altogether, with one study finding that fewer than half of all suspected traffickers in the United States had been arrested.[2]

Due to the complexity and hidden nature of human trafficking, it often is off the radar of public agencies in a position to address it. The researchers noted that 68% of state and local prosecutors do not consider trafficking a problem in their jurisdictions[3] and that over 70% of local, state, and county law enforcement agencies view human trafficking as rare or nonexistent in their local communities.[4] Nearly half of prosecutors and law enforcement agencies are unaware of specific existing anti-trafficking laws, the report said.

The Research: Purpose, Method, and Limitations

Inherent in the study’s purpose is broad recognition that survivors hold the key to just outcomes in human trafficking cases: Survivors’ testimony is commonly essential to bringing traffickers to justice, yet survivors tend to be extremely reluctant to testify against those who have traumatized them and stolen their freedom, the researchers noted.

All survivors became trafficking victims through force, fraud, or coercion, although when a trafficking victim is under 18 years of age, legal proof of force, fraud, or coercion is not required. A central benefit of the interviews was getting reticent survivors to be open about their experiences so that other stakeholders might learn from and act on those perceptions. From a restorative perspective, justice for survivors means working to help make them whole, moving them past trafficking victimhood to personal autonomy and empowerment.

The Urban Institute team conducted semi-structured interviews of survivors and stakeholders at eight sites, guided by four primary areas of interest:

  • What are human trafficking survivors’ experiences with service providers and with justice systems? 
  • What are survivors’ perceptions of justice in their cases?
  • What are stakeholders’ perceptions of justice?
  • What alternative forms of justice may human trafficking survivors desire?

The survivor sample included 45 victims of labor trafficking and 29 victims of sex trafficking. Sixty-nine percent of survivor respondents were women, and Latino was the largest racial component of respondents at 40 percent. Of the survivor sample, 44 had participated in a criminal case and 28 had previously been criminal defendants. A large majority of the surveyed survivors were living in the United States legally. The Urban Institute team also convened an advisory council including legal and social work providers, other researchers, and human trafficking survivors.

The research team noted several limiting factors:

  • All survivors in the sample had received some social services and been referred by a social service provider. Thus, the research lacked the perspectives of survivors who were unable to access services.
  • The research did not reach survivors in remote or rural areas, as all participants were referred by service providers in urban areas.   
  • The researchers selected survivors who were far enough along in their healing process that interviewing them likely would not cause further trauma.
  • The survivor sample was skewed somewhat toward labor trafficking, but the stakeholder sample was skewed toward sex trafficking.

Results: Perceptions of Justice

Both survivors and stakeholders in the study found issues with the traditional justice system’s approach to trafficking. “Criminal justice stakeholders recognized that the criminal justice system’s defined metrics of success are incompatible with survivors’ wants and needs,” the report said. Most sex trafficking survivors did not perceive prison sentences for traffickers as rehabilitative or educational. As a partial explanation of the majority view of interviewed sex trafficking survivors opposing imprisonment of traffickers, researchers reported that survivors observed that entire communities can be complicit in abuse, and that traffickers can still victimize from prison.

The interviews found that, typically, trafficking survivors stressed the importance of holding their traffickers accountable, but perceived justice as being connected to their own ability to heal and to attain autonomy and empowerment. They saw personal stability and access to resources as critical to helping them achieve a sense of personal freedom, the researchers reported.

Of the 100 stakeholder participants, service providers (50%), law enforcement officers (20%), and prosecutor staff (18%) comprised more than three-quarters of the sample.

In contrast to survivors, stakeholders “overwhelmingly defined justice as holding traffickers accountable through criminal prosecution.” They also described a need to connect survivors with services while preventing them from further engagement in what the criminal justice stakeholders tended to view as “voluntary prostitution.”

Many stakeholders also voiced an interest in making sure survivors are able to find justice and to heal.

The researchers noted a tendency on the part of stakeholders to view trafficking survivors more as persons engaged in criminality – voluntary prostitution – than as victims of a crime. That tendency informed the researchers’ objective of helping justice stakeholders to view trafficking survivors as victims, according to the research report.

Results: Models of Justice

Procedural Justice — This justice model holds that justice processes are more important than case outcomes. Perceptions of justice are informed by survivors’ involvement in both criminal justice and the service decisions affecting them, the researchers noted. The study found that although survivors reported feeling they were able to tell their stories to both social service providers and criminal justice stakeholders, they were required to tell their stories too many times. Survivors also reported feeling they influenced decisions affecting them in the provision of social services, but they were less likely to feel involved in criminal justice process decisions. Survivors said they were generally treated with respect by both service providers and criminal justice stakeholders, according to the research report.

Restorative Justice —This model suggests that nonpunitive responses to human trafficking can be superior to incarceration. Restorative justice calls for remedies such as an acknowledgment of wrongdoing or apology from traffickers, an opportunity for the survivor to confront the trafficker, and payment of reparations. The study found that more labor trafficking survivors than sex trafficking survivors wanted an opportunity to confront their attackers; more sex trafficking survivors wanted reparations, according to the research report.

Transitional Justice — This model suggests that larger community efforts to respond to trafficking by acknowledging harms and preventing recurrence are most likely to advance peace and deliver a sense of justice, the report said. Reforms, as well as education and public awareness efforts, are elements of transitional justice. Survivors spoke to Urban Institute researchers about desired changes in immigration, criminal justice, and service provision policies, as well as a need for more resources for services and specific law changes.


The research team’s recommendations include the following, in summary form:

  1. Adopting a compassionate, trauma-based approach to supporting survivors with respectful treatment by law enforcement.
  2. Increasing diversity among law enforcement to make their ranks representative of populations more vulnerable to trafficking.
  3. Improving training for criminal justice actors, including training focused on identifying trafficking, responding to trafficking, and respecting survivors.
  4. Ending the criminalization of survivors.
  5. Incorporating alternative forms of justice when appropriate.
  6. Investing resources in prevention and rehabilitation programming for traffickers.
  7. Improving monitoring of incarcerated traffickers so they are not still engaged in trafficking.


As the Urban Institute’s research report noted, the research underscores a need to consider gaps in the justice system’s capacity to obtain justice for trafficking survivors. It highlights alternative justice pathways – procedural, restorative, and transitional – that show potential for filling those gaps. It emphasizes a widely held view among interviewed survivors that justice is more a function of opportunities to heal and be made whole than strictly about punishment of traffickers. At the same time, justice system stakeholders stressed the continuing importance of bringing human traffickers to justice for their crimes.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2015-VF-GX-0108, awarded to the Urban Institute. This article is based on the grantee summary technical report “Bending Towards Justice: Perceptions of Justice among Human Trafficking Survivors” (2018), by Jeanette Hussemann, Colleen Owens, Hanna Love, Lilly Yu, Evelyn McCoy, Abbey Flynn, and Kyla Woods.

Date Published: April 7, 2021