While federal prosecutions of human trafficking cases have risen substantially in the past decade, state and local prosecutions continue to lag, and Northeastern researchers want to find out why.
Working in partnership with the Urban Institute, principal investigators Amy Farrell and Jack McDevitt of Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice will utilize a grant from the National Institute of Justice — the research branch of the U.S. Department of Justice — to study the challenges faced by officials investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases.
“We are looking to identify the difficulties law enforcement and prosecutors face when dealing with cases of human trafficking,” said Farrell, an assistant professor of criminal justice. Despite the fact that 42 states have enacted anti-trafficking laws, she added, “the number of cases identified each year is smaller than estimates of the problem would predict and few of these cases are brought forward to criminal prosecution.”
Through a series of systematic case reviews and in-depth qualitative studies of the experiences of police, prosecutors, judges, other court officials and service providers, this study will provide a glimpse into the challenges faced by criminal justice officials from a number counties across the United States.
To date, the Department of Justice has awarded more than $1.5 million to Northeastern’s Institute on Race and Justice to support research on law enforcement identification and response to human trafficking problems in local communities.
McDevitt noted that human trafficking is a relatively new crime for the criminal justice system and was first recognized by the United States and the United Nations in 2000. There are two types of human trafficking: sex trafficking and labor trafficking. The majority of cases brought to prosecution involve the former.
“We plan to formulate best practices in identifying, investigating, and prosecuting cases of human trafficking,” said McDevitt, associate dean for graduate studies and research. “Many prosecutors are unaware that their state even has these laws.
“While training the police is critical, it is also important to train prosecutors and court officials as well. If we only train police, they will get better at identifying these crimes and making arrests, but will continue to run into barriers when they try to bring cases forward to prosecution.”
According to Farrell, less than 20 percent of police agencies in the U.S. have had any training to know what trafficking is, only 9 percent have protocols or policies in place if a case is identified, and less than 5 percent have investigators specializing in trafficking.