The arrest of millionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein on federal sex charges has drawn renewed attention to the issue of trafficking. Governors are seeking to take advantage of the opportunity to educate the public about various forms of forced labor and exploitation.
“One of the biggest victories we can have is to raise awareness and to let people know we have a problem in this country,” South Dakota Kristi Noem told Governing in an interview at the summer meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA) in Salt Lake City.
There are believed to be 40 million victims of trafficking worldwide each year, with the number reaching into the hundreds of thousands in the U.S.
“We know what a pervasive evil human trafficking is in every state,” says Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who hosted a discussion about trafficking at the NGA meeting on Thursday. “This is not a partisan issue. This is a 'what is the right thing to do' issue. How do we protect our children and our citizens?”
Most states have passed new anti-trafficking laws or policies in recent years. But in general, advocates say states have done too little. Anti-trafficking efforts are often underfunded, and it's often treated as a law enforcement problem, with limited services being offered to victims who lack housing and health care.
“The first place states have been willing to put money is in law enforcement, which from our perspective just results in our young people -- who are actually victims -- getting locked up and being detained more often [than] the actual pimps and traffickers,” says Darla Bardine, executive director of the National Network for Youth.
Because trafficking is an issue that involves so many different actors -- multiple agencies across every level of government, as well as nonprofits -- often no one seems to be in charge. Only a handful of states have specific offices to combat trafficking.
“We’ve got so many different good organizations that work in this space, it’s just not well-coordinated,” says Noem. “I think that’s where governors can lead. We have an opportunity to coordinate all of those efforts and bring them under an umbrella where they can work together.”
'My Pimp Doesn't Have a Waitlist'
Over the past decade, a majority of states have passed laws to address trafficking. Most have “safe harbor” laws, calling for victims of trafficking to be diverted from the justice system to social services. Since 2017, about a third of the states have passed laws shielding minors from prosecution under prostitution statutes. A majority of states also now allow trafficking victims the opportunity to expunge their records of crimes committed when they were trafficked.
Despite these laws, victims are still frequently arrested in an effort to pressure them to testify against their pimps or traffickers.
“In states that do have safe harbor laws, they aren’t necessarily being enforced,” says Bardine.
State and local agencies also tend to act as though releasing victims from the control of traffickers and pimps represents the end of the job. But survivors of trafficking often need help getting their lives back into some semblance of order, says Kay Buck, executive director of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. Some people fall prey to trafficking in the first place because they lack essentials, such as housing, jobs or connections to caring adults.
“Crisis help is not all they need,” Buck says. “They have told us over and over again that they need comprehensive care, such as housing and legal services for expunging records.”
There’s generally scarce funding for that.
Bardine recalls one survivor, after being placed on one waitlist for services after another, saying, “My pimp doesn’t have a waitlist.”
A More Comprehensive Approach
Some states are trying to better organize their response.
Last year, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan set aside $5 million for anti-trafficking efforts, putting a point person in charge of coordinating both support services and law enforcement.
Over the past six years, California has devoted $10 million a year to aid survivors through the Office of Emergency Services. It has helped 11,000 survivors while building up an infrastructure of program expertise and better coordination between various agencies and nongovernmental actors.
In Minnesota, whenever a trafficked youth is identified, the state has regional “navigators” available to help local law enforcement or social service agencies direct them to the help they need. Funding for the initiatives was increased this year by $2 million, to $15.2 million for the two-year budget cycle.
“We have housing, mental health therapy -- a ton of services tailored to people who are trafficked,” says Beth Holger, executive director of The Link, a nonprofit that acts as the program navigator in Minneapolis. “We work with ER staff, child protection, youth workers and law enforcement on how to identify them and get them to services.”
At the NGA meeting, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson pointed out that his state now requires educators and licensed truck drivers to receive training in how to identify people who may have been trafficked.
“One challenge is the public in general and making them more aware,” Hutchinson said. “It can happen in rural states as well.”
It’s important that every available set of eyes is alert to the warning signs of trafficking, Ducey said.
“These people who were getting away with this were invisible and these young girls were invisible,” he said. “This is happening everywhere. People may not be aware of what’s happening. We get Uber and taxi drivers to report something.”
Beyond Sex Trafficking
When trafficking does receive attention from the media and the public, or even lawmakers, the focus tends to be on women and girls forced to work in the sex trade. But labor trafficking is often overlooked.
“For every 100 prosecutions, 95 are for sex trafficking, even though there’s more labor trafficking,” says Brad Myles, CEO of Polaris, an anti-trafficking group based in Washington. “If you talk about a 14-year-old being raped in a hotel room, it plays differently than a 50-year-old man from Mexico being forced to pick peppers.”
Although Myles supports state laws shielding minors who have been trafficked from prostitution charges, he worries that the decriminalization effort may go too far.
New York and several other states have considered bills that would decriminalize consensual sex for money altogether, meaning johns, pimps and brothel owners would not be charged, either. The legislation in New York specifically maintains sex trafficking as a prosecutable offense, but decriminalizing the sex trade might make traffickers even more elusive.
“Greenlighting more men to buy sex, or repealing laws around pimping -- those types of steps could backfire and could lead to increases in sex trafficking,” Myles says. “It could lead to an expansion of the sex market, with less policing.”
Treating trafficked individuals as victims of a crime and not perpetrators of a crime is important, Cindy McCain, the widow of U.S. Sen. John McCain, told the governors. She’s spearheaded anti-trafficking efforts in Arizona and other states as chair of the McCain Institute at Arizona State University.
“When you describe a child who’s been trafficked as a prostitute, that implies willingness, and that’s simply not what’s going on,” she said.
But their safety depends on treating their johns and pimps as criminals. Letting people like Jeffrey Epstein off the hook would not be helpful, Holger says.
“In Arizona, we increased the penalty to 100 years if they get caught trafficking people,” McCain said. “That’s a big deal.”