Human Trafficking Prosecutions Rose Through 2015: Report

Nearly 2,000 referred on suspicion of human trafficking in 2015

Attorney General Jeff Sessions / Getty Images
June 25, 2018

Prosecutions for human trafficking offenses rose through 2015, a just-released report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals.

In 2015, 1,923 suspects were referred for prosecution for human trafficking offenses, an increase of 41 percent from 2011. Only about half of all referrals ended up getting prosecuted in each year, with the other half usually turned down because of insufficient evidence. However, in cases where the U.S. Attorney's office opted to prosecute in 2015, 93 percent were convicted, with 99 percent of those doing jail time.

Human trafficking is a broad category of offense, which the report says has its roots in the 13th Amendment's prohibition on slavery and involuntary servitude. Today, the federal definition of the crime covers peonage, slavery, forced labor, sex trafficking, child pornography production, and transportation for illegal sexual activity. The latter two charges account for about two thirds of referrals for human trafficking offenses, according to the report, with the other categories accounting for the remaining third.

Fifteen federal judicial districts accounted for 36 percent of human trafficking referrals in 2015, led by the Middle District of Florida, the Northern District of Texas, and the Western District of Missouri. Several of the districts with high numbers (in the range of 30 to 70) of referrals were along the southwestern border—namely northern and southern Texas and Arizona. These regions also routinely prosecute high numbers of immigration and drug offenses, according to a Free Beacon analysis.

In 2015, the agency most likely to refer individuals for human trafficking prosecution was the FBI, with 52 percent of referrals, followed by ICE with 19 percent. The Department of Homeland Security as a whole—which includes ICE—was responsible for 30 percent of referrals, while the Department of Justice was responsible for 52 percent.

While human trafficking is a problem at the border, the average human trafficker is actually a white male citizen under the age of 35. Fifty-seven percent of defendants charged in federal court in 2015 were white, 24 percent black, and 17 percent Hispanic. (By comparison to the national population, black people are overrepresented as human traffickers, accounting for 13 percent of the overall population.) Ninety-four percent are citizens, with the remaining six percent divided evenly between legal and illegal immigrants.

It's not obvious if the spike in prosecutions is driven by an increase in criminal activity or in the effectiveness of law enforcement. A report from November of last year found a similar increasing trend among cases of sexual exploitation of children (a category which overlaps with human trafficking) between 2004 and 2013. But when asked about the report at the time, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice told the Washington Free Beacon that the report did not provide any information about the actual incidence rate of child sexual exploitation in society—a similar limitation governs the new report on human trafficking generally.

One indicator of the number of incidences of human trafficking comes from reports to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. According to these reports, the number of people being trafficked rose over the new report's period of coverage. The hotline received 5,575 reports of human trafficking in 2015, a 70 percent increase from 2012. Although the BJS statistics only cover up to 2015, the hotline reported receiving 8,524 reports in 2017, suggesting a greater increase in human trafficking. At the same time, however, this may indicate an increase in the prominence of the trafficking hotline, making it an imperfect measure.

These rising indicators explain why combating human trafficking has been a focus of the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In February, speaking following the end of Human Trafficking Prevention Month, Sessions bragged that his department had brought a record 550 human trafficking charges in its first year.