Cracking down on human trafficking

To overcome the hurdles to identifying and prosecuting human-trafficking cases, police and prosecutors must significantly bolster education and training and develop coordinated, proactive investigation strategies, according to a new report prepared by Northeastern researchers in conjunction with the Washington-based Urban Institute.

The report, released on Monday, was sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Amy Farrell, assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and Jack McDevitt, associate dean of research in the College of Social Sciences & Humanities, conducted the two-year study. Both Farrell and McDevitt are staff members in Northeastern’s Institute on Race and Justice.

The study analyzed 140 closed trafficking cases in 12 sites across the country, seeking to identify the challenges local, state and federal law enforcement face in identifying, investigating and prosecuting human-trafficking cases.

“We hope our work will result in the development of systems within police and prosecutors’ offices to promote identification and investigation,” Farrell said. “Securing successful human-trafficking prosecutions about more than just having a local champion for this issue. There need to be organizational systems in place that include training, specialized personnel and resources.”

The study did not aim to determine national trends using this data or draw conclusions about patterns of human-trafficking prosecutions nationwide.

The report found that law enforcement face several challenges in handling human-trafficking cases. The most significant challenges include a lack of awareness among law enforcement and the public of the problem, a reliance on reactive strategies such as waiting for victims to come forward, negative attitudes toward human-trafficking victims and a low prioritization to prosecute these cases. The report also found that victims are largely fearful of reporting these crimes and suffer a number of trauma-related conditions that require significant support.

Among the report’s major findings were that the majority of cases identified were sex-trafficking cases and that prosecutors are reluctant to use newer laws in place when trying human-trafficking cases — instead referring to older laws they are more familiar with.

The report recommends bolstering education and awareness of the issue from organizations that support law enforcement agencies, offering comprehensive support and empowerment to victims and taking a more proactive approach to investigation and prosecution that includes creating specialized units to handle sex- and labor-trafficking cases.

The report also looked at the effectiveness of a 2000 federal law that defines a new set of crimes related to human trafficking and enhances penalties for existing offenses. Since then, 49 states have enacted legislation criminalizing human trafficking.

At a National Institute of Justice conference held Monday morning in Virginia, Acting U.S. Associate Attorney General Tony West noted the report “will be a tremendous resource in our work to fight trafficking crimes.”

“In addition to helping us better appreciate the dimensions of human trafficking, this report underscores the need for renewed vigilance in fighting these crimes,” West said.

Farrell will present the study’s results at the conference on Tuesday afternoon.

Farrell and McDevitt collaborated on the report with Northeastern graduate research assistant Rebecca Pfeffer and senior research associate Stephanie Fahy. Northeastern partnered with the Urban Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization based in Washington, D.C., that examines the social, economic and governance challenges facing the nation.

View selected pub­li­ca­tions from the Institute on Race and Justice in IRis, Northeastern’s dig­ital archive.