States Make Progress in Combating Human Trafficking

In the weeks leading up to Super Bowl 50 last month, law enforcement officials found 42 potential human trafficking victims through a series of stings. At least two were under the age of 18, according to CBS San Francisco news affiliate 5KPIX.

Human trafficking is a fast-growing global issue with a reach that impacts every state in the country. In 2012, the United Nation’s International Labour Organization, or ILO, estimated that there are 21 million victims of human trafficking all across the world, forced into labor or commercial sex work. Experts suggest it is the second largest criminal enterprise in the world—just behind the international drug trade—netting an estimated $150 billion each year, according to the ILO.

President Obama issued a national proclamation in December 2015 designating the month of January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and Feb. 1 as National Freedom Day, in an effort to shed light on the problem of human trafficking.

“People from all walks of life are trafficked every day, and the United States is committed to remaining a leader in the global movement to end this abhorrent practice” said Obama. “Let us resolve to build a future in which its perpetrators are brought to justice and no people are denied their inherent human rights of freedom and dignity.”

Given the underground nature of the crime of human trafficking, it is difficult to estimate the number of victims within the United States. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline, however, has received reports of more than 25,000 cases of human trafficking in the United States since 2007. This number includes nearly 9,000 reports of potential cases involving U.S.-born victims, and about 8,000 potential cases involving foreign-born individuals. More than 20,000 of the cases reported through the hotline involved female victims.

In 2000, lawmakers in Congress crafted bipartisan legislation to directly combat human trafficking. Called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act—or TVPA—the bill establishes what is now known as the “3Ps” framework that aims to punish traffickers, protect the victims and prevent this practice from reoccurring.

The 3Ps framework led the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the Office of Legal Policy to write the 2004 Model State Anti-Trafficking Statute for state leaders looking for model legislation. The Council of State Governments included the Justice Department’s model in its 2007 volume of Suggested State Legislation—which is a compilation of draft legislation about topics of current importance to states.

With the 3Ps framework and model legislation in place, state lawmakers had no difficulty passing their own anti-human trafficking legislation. Washington and Texas were the first states to pass laws in 2003. By 2013, all 50 states and the District of Colombia had anti-trafficking laws on the books.

Since 2011, the Polaris Project, a national anti-human trafficking advocacy organization, has rated states’ legislative responses to human trafficking. It created a four-tiered rating system that assesses the presence or absence of 10 categories of laws that form a basic legal foundation for human trafficking. It covers issues such as the legal definition of human trafficking, investigative tools, required training for law enforcement professionals and vacating convictions for trafficking victims.

In 2011, only 11 states ranked in the top tier 1 category, which signifies the presences of meaningful laws to combat human trafficking. By 2014, the last year Polaris surveyed the states, 39 states ranked in Tier 1.

Despite this progress, more remains to be done in the fight against human trafficking. At the 2015 CSG National Conference in Nashville, Tenn., in December 2015, the CSG International Committee unanimously passed a resolution on eliminating human trafficking that recognized that “combating human trafficking requires a collaborative, comprehensive approach across all levels of government” and encourages states to work with federal agencies and non-profit organizations to combat the criminal enterprise in the coming years.