Human trafficking—the crime of forcing people into labor or sex acts—is an ongoing problem in the United States and around the world, and it’s getting worse. The coronavirus pandemic has caused a rise in such exploitation, while also cutting off support services for some victims.
The Neal Davis Law Firm, a criminal defense law firm based in Houston, Tx., recently produced an in-depth report on human trafficking and its trends, as well as an examination of the laws pertaining to trafficking state-by-state.
The report, U.S. Human Trafficking Statistics & Laws by State, defines human trafficking, assesses its scope, pinpoints hot spots for the crime and lists the penalties in each state for human trafficking.
As for the pandemic’s impact on human trafficking, the report found that economic crises caused by the pandemic have led to an increase in the crime in Texas.
“Traffickers will use any type of vulnerability, so it is a huge red flag to us as an organization because of COVID,” said Samantha Hernandez, Mobilization Director for Elijah Rising, a Houston-based organization which helps victims of human trafficking to reclaim their lives.
A report by Reform Austin showed that the pandemic has increased human trafficking because many people have lost legitimate jobs, leading some to resort to prostitution.
While traffickers smuggle some victims across the border from Mexico and then compel them to pay the price for entry via prostitution, a majority of victims are not abducted but rather turn to prostitution in the guise of a job opportunity, Hernandez said.
Morgane Nicot of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime told Reuters last year that the pandemic has driven human trafficking increasingly underground, “fueling fears of more violent means of control used against victims who are being exploited during the pandemic.”
She added: “Traffickers have also expanded their reach through the misuse of Internet and communication technology to advertise, recruit and exploit persons and especially lure children, whom they groom for sexual online exploitation.”
Besides human trafficking for sex, the report found that millions of persons undergo forced labor compelled by human traffickers, from domestic servitude to debt bondage to forced child labor.
Such exploitation commonly can occur in businesses such as manufacturing, construction, hospitality, agriculture, car washes and nail salons.
Human trafficking can also take the form of forced marriage, forced criminal activity, child soldiers and even organ harvesting.
40.3 Million Victims
An estimated 40.3 million persons worldwide are victims of human trafficking, and one-fourth of them are children.
Modern slavery occurs in every region of the world and is most prevalent in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
The motivation, simply, is money. Human traffickers reap an estimated $150 billion per year in profits, about two-thirds of which is from commercial sexual exploitation.
The Neal Davis report examined statistics for human trafficking by state in the U.S. It broke down these numbers in terms of the type of exploitation and the volume of charges and cases cleared.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a substantial number of human trafficking charges are cleared, meaning there was insufficient evidence to convict a person of the crime. Indeed, almost 55 percent of involuntary servitude charges are cleared, as are more than 45 percent of charges involving prostitution, or commercial sex acts.
Overall in 2019, human trafficking charges in the U.S. were cleared or dropped 46.4 percent of the time, according to the FBI.
States with the most human trafficking cases tend to be large border states, such as Texas and California.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline reports that California had 1,507 cases of human trafficking in 2019, and Texas had 1,080 cases. Florida was next with 896, then New York with 454.
Finally, the report examined penalties for human trafficking in all 50 states. Each state deems human trafficking a felony crime, but the degree of criminality and the levels of punishment vary from state to state.
For instance, in Texas, human trafficking is a second-degree felony. But it becomes a first-degree felony when a minor (under 18 years old) is involved. Conviction of a first-degree felony in Texas can bring a prison sentence of at least five years and up to 99 years or life, as well as a fine of up to $100,000.
Depending on the exact nature of the crime, penalties and punishments in other states can include decades in prison and fines of $100,000 or more.
On the plus side, according to attorney Neal Davis, there has been an “escalation in the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases, including sex trafficking.”
“We expect this trend to continue,” he said.
The report also lists additional resources on human trafficking, such as organizations persons who witness or suspect human trafficking should contact aside from their local authorities (911) or the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888).
Bruce Westbrook is a Houston-based journalist who was a reporter for the Houston Chronicle for 20 years and worked as a writer-editor at a leading Texas personal injury law firm for eight years. He was commissioned by the Neal Davis Law Firm to prepare an account of the human trafficking analysis.