Do Changing Federal Priorities Explain Drop in Child Sex Trafficking Cases?

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Photo by Magdalena Roeseler via Flickr

Despite the high-profile case involving Jeffrey Epstein, federal prosecutions for sex trafficking of children, under Title 18 Section 1591, declined 26.7 percent over the past fiscal year, according to the latest available data from the Justice Department, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

The criminal charge specifies that the person knowingly, through means of force, “coerced” a minor into a sex act.

This also happens to be the same law used in the case against New York financier Jeffrey Epstein,  who is charged with operating a sex trafficking ring that involved girls as young as 14.

During the first eight months of FY 2019, the U.S. government has only reported 108 “new” prosecution cases using this criminal charge.

“If the present pace of such prosecutions continues, the fiscal 2019 total will be 162, compared to 221 last year,” said TRAC.

The decline in prosecutions contrasts with cases brought during the Obama administration, when there was a clear growth trend of the number of child sex trafficking cases that were being prosecuted.

“Compared to five years ago, the estimate of FY 2019 prosecutions of this type is down 32.2 percent, from 239,” said TRAC.


Child Sex Trafficking prosecutions 2009-2019. Table courtesy TRAC.


In 2017, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimated that one in seven endangered runaways reported to them were likely sex trafficking victims.

Fox News reported in the summer of  2018 that, “The United States is again ranked as one of the worst countries in the world for human trafficking.

According to a recently released report by the State Department, the top three nations of origin for victims of human trafficking in 2018 were the United States, Mexico and the Philippines.

That State Department report, titled Trafficking in Persons, also found that “children in foster care, homeless youth, undocumented immigrant children and those with substance abuse problems were especially at risk to fall into the human trafficking trap.”

So, despite the clear epidemic that child sex trafficking has become, why are we seeing less prosecutions?

The most likely answer, suggests TRAC, is the changing priorities of the administration.

The 94 federal prosecutors in the U.S. generally follow “broad administration enforcement policies” but they also have considerable autonomy when it comes to deciding to bring on a case or not.

Often, other law enforcement agencies bring forward cases for the prosecutors to work on. This kind of “teaming up” is what is most indicative of a president’s criminal justice priorities, and TRAC claims these statistics “reveal what an administration is trying to achieve.”

For this past administration, of the ten cases that were referred by an outside agency, “Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was recorded as the lead investigative agency on seven of these referrals.”

There may still be some hope after all of this because compared to ten years ago, there have been 90.6 percent more cases tried from the 85 reported in 2009. And, overall, federal prosecutions, “for all crimes are up significantly since 2016,” TRAC Reports.

So, while we’re better off where we were a decade ago, we cannot forget the “over 300,000 of America’s young population [that] is considered at risk for sexual exploitation,” said TRAC.

Additional Reading: Human and Sex Trafficking Vastly ‘Under-Reported’ in the US

The full TRAC report can be accessed here.

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR news intern.

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