U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs; National Institute of Justice The Research, Development, and Evaluation Agency of the U.S. Department of Justice U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs National Institute of Justice The Research, Development, and Evaluation Agency of the U.S. Department of Justice

Hidden Victims of Human Trafficking

Amy Farrell, Northeastern University, Boston, MA
NIJ Conference 2012
June 18-20

Amy Farrell: So my name is Amy Farrell. I am an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, and I just completed a study along with colleagues at the Urban Institute. So it was funded by the National Institute of Justice looking at the barriers that local communities face identifying, investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases under new state human trafficking laws.

Local communities face barriers in being able to identify those cases, so very few cases are identified. Police take a reactive approach to these cases. That is, they wait for victims to come forward and identify themselves, which very rarely happens. They wait for people in the community to identify potential victims, which is hard because these victims are hidden, or the people who benefit from those victims' services, that is, they are johns buying commercial sex, or they are people who benefit from cheap labor that the victims are producing, are unlikely to report to the police.

When cases are identified, approximately 70 percent are prosecuted, so it's a fairly high prosecution rate. But they are prosecuted under existing laws, not prosecuted under new trafficking laws. So very small proportion of these cases are prosecuted under the new tools that the legislature has given prosecutors to use, and instead, prosecutors rely on existing laws where there is familiarity with the case law, there is familiarity with how they would present evidence, and there is familiarity with what jurors would do at the end of those cases. So we found both structural barriers and cultural barriers to the identification, investigation and prosecution of those cases.

Culturally, there are still very negative attitudes towards victims of trafficking. So while detectives and prosecutors are aware that victims experience trauma and may be difficult to come forward or participate in the prosecution, they hold fairly negative attitudes towards these victims. For example, we had one investigator who told us that it would be easier to prosecute a case of homicide because the victim was dead and you wouldn't have to put them on the stand, and the chief in that same department indicated that they had a low priority for human trafficking investigations because sex trafficking victims who he saw as prostitutes, 99.9 percent of the time were "crack whores." So using that terminology whores, prostitutes, using the term of suspects, using practices like arrest and detention, were common, which as you can imagine makes victims unwilling to come forward, and oftentimes, makes it more difficult to actually get information that would be useful to prosecute those cases.

Develop training to better understand human trafficking, we can understand the trauma associated with trafficking, what it does to victims, the harm it has on communities. We need to prioritize the identification of trafficking, which means a proactive as opposed to reactive identification strategy. There is also a necessity for increased tools for prosecutors to learn about how to use expert witnesses to understand victim trauma, how to proceed with investigations and prosecutions when victims are reluctant to testify, and how to use new and untested laws like human trafficking laws.

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Date modified: September 21, 2012