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Improving the Investigation and Prosecution of State and Local Human Trafficking Cases

Date Published
August 31, 2016

Researchers in an NIJ-funded study focused on the challenges faced in identification, investigation and prosecution of trafficking cases at the state and local levels. The researchers’ primary goal in identifying these challenges was to improve law enforcement efforts to locate victims of trafficking and prosecute their traffickers.

The study addressed three main questions:

  • What are the characteristics of local human trafficking investigations and prosecutions?
  • Do certain types of human trafficking offenses, such as offenses with particular victims or offender characteristics, predict whether prosecution occurs under human trafficking laws or other criminal statutes?
  • What are the organizational, structural or cultural factors that inhibit or facilitate the prosecution of human trafficking cases?

The researchers identified challenge in three areas of human trafficking casts -- challenges in identifying victims, investigating cases, and prosecuting cases.

Challenges in Identifying Victims. Some of the challenges in identifying victims are inherent to human trafficking cases, such as the covert nature of the activity, victims’ inability or unwillingness to seek help and the fear many victims had of law enforcement. Identification also lagged due to a failure of police agencies and other first responders to train all officers/front-line individuals on how to recognize victims.

Challenges in Investigating Cases

  • Law enforcement agencies do not uniformly make human trafficking a priority.
  • Many agencies do not have the resources needed to train, staff and investigate cases — especially patrol officers and first responders.
  • Agencies do not have officers who are sufficiently trained in appropriate interviewing techniques or who have the foreign language skill necessary to facilitate identification.
  • Law enforcement officers were often unprepared to deal with the amount of trauma suffered by victims. Trauma-related symptoms made investigations more difficult, and victims often required more services and for longer periods than law enforcement could provide. Consequently, law enforcement often resorted to using tactics they would normally use on suspects, including the use of arrest to secure victim cooperation.

Challenges in Prosecuting Cases. State prosecutors were reluctant to use new human trafficking laws and instead charged offenders with offenses they were more familiar with, such as rape, kidnapping or pandering. No state prosecutor in the study had ever prosecuted a labor trafficking case. Background characteristics of the victims often influenced prosecutor decisions about charging, so most cases identified by local law enforcement were prosecuted federally.

The researchers provide several recommendations for improving the identification of human trafficking, including:

  • Prioritizing human trafficking identification in communities and law enforcement agencies
  • Providing institutional resources specifically for human trafficking
  • Using proactive investigation strategies

They also identified several strategies to improve investigations, including:

  • Providing adequate and comprehensive victim services, including adequate shelters
  • Developing long-term plans to help survivors reintegrate into society
  • Improving law enforcement training, especially on interviewing techniques
  • Establishing open relationships between police and prosecutors

The researchers used multiple methodologies, including analysis of quantitative data from 140 closed human trafficking case records; analysis of in-depth interviews with 166 police, prosecutors, victim service providers and other court stakeholders; and descriptive analysis of information from incidents that were never classified as human trafficking but might contain elements of human trafficking. They collected data in 12 study counties representing three different levels of state human trafficking legislation (none, basic or comprehensive), as well as states with and without federally funded human trafficking task forces.

About this Article

The work discussed in this article was completed under grant number 2009-IJ-CX-0015 awarded by NIJ to Northeastern University. The article is based on the grant report Identifying Challenges to Improve the Investigation and Prosecution of State and Local Human Trafficking Cases by Amy Farrell, Jack McDevitt, Rebecca Pfeffer, Stephanie Fahy, Colleen Owens, Meredith Dank, and William Adams.

This study built on a 2008 study of the same topic, which was completed under grant number 2005-IJ-CX-0045 awarded by NIJ to Northeastern University. Read the grant report, Understanding and Improving Law Enforcement Responses to Human Trafficking, by Amy Farrell, Jack McDevitt, and Stephanie Fahy.

National Institute of Justice, "Improving the Investigation and Prosecution of State and Local Human Trafficking Cases," August 31, 2016, nij.ojp.gov:
Date Created: September 19, 2016