May 2016

This post was originally published on this site


By Jocelyn Iverson, Research Assistant


Misperceptions, preconceived notions and a lack of adequate training have put up multiple roadblocks within the criminal justice system to the liberation and rehabilitation of survivors of human trafficking.  The fact that trafficked persons are already a vulnerable, often hidden population makes it all the more essential for law enforcement officers to be able to readily identify victims and for prosecutors to successfully bring cases against their traffickers.  Yet this has been happening at alarmingly low rates since the passage of the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, and subsequent state and local laws since 2003.  Globally, the most recent United Nations report notes that “In spite of legislative progress…there are still very few convictions for trafficking in persons.”  The low prosecution rates are all the more surprising when you take into account that the criminal justice response is the primary method utilized to combat human trafficking.  This method, although valuable, can often overlook the other three “Ps” of the trafficking paradigm, namely protection and prevention.  Unfortunately, when the various players within the criminal justice system are not provided with the necessary skills, knowledge, or resources to understand the complexities of human trafficking and the applicable laws- especially as they change over time- the victims are made to pay the price.

Limited Training

Local law enforcement officers working on the frontlines are likely to come into contact with victims of trafficking during the course of their regular duties.  However, many of these officers lack training on how to recognize the signs of trafficking or mistakenly believe that the issue falls strictly under federal jurisdiction.  Additionally, definitional confusions have been known to exist between sex trafficking and prostitution or between human smuggling and human trafficking.  According to the TVPA, human trafficking requires force, fraud or coercion, which sets it apart from sex work or smuggling in important ways.  Law enforcement officers who fail to recognize these sometimes subtle but important differences also fail to implement the laws as intended by their drafters.

Even when local law enforcement has received training on the complexities of human trafficking, it is usually only in the realm of sex trafficking, particularly of minor females.  This conceptualization completely disregards both victims of forced labor as well as adult victims of sex trafficking, including men.  Labor trafficking victims can be especially difficult for law enforcement to identify, many times because the victims are hidden in out of the way places such as rural farms or within private households.  If the members of the criminal justice system who are likely to encounter these victims aren’t equipped to identify a them, how can we expect the system to be at all effective?


Another player in the criminal justice system who can have a substantial impact on human trafficking cases is the criminal prosecutor.  Prosecutors are given a large degree of autonomy to make decisions about whether or not to prosecute a case, and unfortunately there are several factors which make it less likely that they will move forward on trafficking cases.  Prosecutors look at how likely a case is to result in a conviction, as well as the perceived credibility of the victim, in making their decision on whether or not to bring charges.  Both of these factors contribute to an uphill battle in the successful prosecution of human trafficking cases.  One difficulty prosecutors have is that it takes time after state laws are passed to work through the legal system to see how local judges interpret them and what evidence law enforcement needs to collect for a successful conviction.  Also, given the complexities of trafficking situations and numerous popular misconceptions, a jury will not fully understand the case to the degree necessary to merit a conviction.  Additionally, trafficking victims themselves can be very difficult to get to cooperate in lengthy trials due to a number of factors, including fear of retribution, social or economic dependence on the traffickers, and general mistrust of law enforcement.  Prosecutors also take into account that juries may not find trafficking victims credible due to their marginalized status, and sometimes even view the victim as a presumed criminal.


It is becoming increasingly likely that local law enforcement officers and prosecutors will encounter trafficking victims and potentially have a significant impact on their lives. Thus, it is essential that both parties have a thorough understanding of the nuanced complexities of trafficking as well as how these realities may or may not fit into the legal definitions of all types of human trafficking.  It is necessary to fully grasp that human trafficking is not just sex trafficking, it is not always international and that victims need support in order to be able to assist in prosecutions.  Without some type of a comprehensive training program for all sectors of the criminal justice system, anti-trafficking laws will never have the impact intended by their drafters.  There must be programs in place to assist officers and prosecutors in recognizing how they conceptualize trafficking currently, and how that needs to change to ensure justice in the criminal justice system.  

About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.

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