For several reasons, research shows a striking number of human trafficking cases go unprosecuted in the United States.
A common thread through most: Law enforcement simply doesn’t know how to handle them, according to a study published by the the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
Colleen Owens, a Meyers High School graduate and researcher for the center, is to lead a talk at Misericordia University on March 19 on her team’s findings that human trafficking is a thriving industry in the United States, one that law enforcement agencies have yet to perfect their finesse in tackling.
Of the cases studied, about 16 percent ended in some type of sex-trafficking charge and two percent produced labor-trafficking charges, the report says.
Owens, 32, was lead researcher for a 320-page report titled Identifying Challenges to Improve the Investigation and Prosecution of State and Local Human Trafficking Cases published in 2012. Her team interviewed former victims and reviewed closed case files in strategic population centers around the country. She is now finishing up research on a new study that looks at global trafficking trends.
Anti-trafficking laws on state and local levels are relatively new in the United States, the 2012 report says. Pennsylvania’s Criminal Code was updated in 2006 to include trafficking definitions and grades it as a felony in all cases.
However, recent charges and convictions in Northeastern Pennsylvania for prostitution, racketeering and corruption of minors strongly indicate that trafficking charges should have made as well, Owens said.
Owens was not familiar with case details, but after hearing a summary of the charges, she said they had glaring human-trafficking elements.
According to court records and The Times Leader archives:
• Anthony Lamont Boone, 30, and Jose Alvelo, 20, were charged in October with promoting prostitution when police alleged they took a woman and a teenage girl to a Tunkhannock hotel to have sex for money. Two others were charged in the case, but their charges were withdrawn, court records show. Boone is to be formally arraigned in county court later this month. A trial date for Alvelo has not been set.
• Rebecca Ann Butler, 42, was convicted last month in Luzerne County Court on charges of child endangerment and corruption of minors after taking two young girls to visit an inmate in State Correctional Institution at Retreat. The convict, Andre Vancliff, allegedly touched them inappropriately during visits. Butler had taken the girls to visit Vancliff several times over the course of more than two years starting in 2010.
Trafficking charges were not filed in either of those cases.
Human trafficking should be defined as a value exchange between the suspect trafficker and the customer, Owens said. In its definition, the state crime code explains that trafficking occurs when “a person knowingly traffics or knowingly attempts to traffic another person, knowing that the other person will be subjected to forced labor or services.”
Anti-trafficking case law is lacking in most states, making it difficult for prosecutors to follow through with trafficking suspects. Often the criminals get slapped with other charges such as promoting prostitution or racketeering, for which the law is more defined.
Law enforcement, too, is often unfamiliar with trafficking situations, both in the labor and sex trade, Owens said, and many times victims withhold the whole story because they fear legal retribution.
“Even from their perspective, they don’t view themselves as victims,” Owens said. “They view themselves as committing a crime.”
Having law enforcement trained in investigating sex crimes is a good place to start, she said, with investigators who know how to approach victims and which questions to ask, such as “Were you forced to do this?”
While labor trafficking seems to be far less prevalent than the sex trade, Owens said labor-trafficking victims are bonded to their employers in a complicated web of secrecy that keeps them working in silence and under poor conditions.
Owens said that when it comes to labor trafficking, immigration law makes it difficult to pinpoint who is committing the crime.
“When (immigrants) get here, they’re in a situation where they’re bonded to their employer. If they complain, they lose their visa,” Owens said. “According to our laws, we just look at those people as if they are undocumented, and they are here illegally.”