Human Trafficking Overview

Human Trafficking Overview


Human trafficking is the buying, selling and smuggling of people to profit from their forced labor or sexual servitude. While every state criminalizes at least some trafficking activity, lawmakers continue to explore new methods to combat traffickers and provide support for victims.

In 2014, at least 31 states enacted new anti-trafficking laws. Two significant areas of focus within this legislation address the trafficking of children and the development of rehabilitative services for exploited youth. Legislation containing protective provisions for trafficked children is sometimes called “safe harbor” laws.


Legislative Intent of “Safe Harbor” Laws 

Safe harbor legislation usually includes a statement of intent for how sexually exploited youth should be treated under the law. Common goals indentified in safe harbor legislation include: that trafficked children be treated as victims and not prosecuted as prostitutes, that trafficked children be diverted from the justice system and placed in appropriate services, that states provide a protective response to prevent further victimization and that individuals who fund, profit from, or pay for sex with children are appropriately punished. At least 28 states have enacted legislation addressing safe harbor issues.

Human Trafficking map

Preventing Trafficked Youth from Entering the Justice System 

Sexually exploited youth are often arrested for prostitution and other trafficking-related offenses. In response, states are focusing on addressing youth as victims and taking steps to prevent arrested or previously convicted young people from being treated as criminals by the justice system. Actions taken by states include providing immunity from prosecution for certain offenses by minors, creating an affirmative defense to criminal charges for trafficked victims, providing for the pretrial diversion of trafficked youth and creating procedures to clear trafficking related criminal convictions from victim’s records.


Immunity from Prosecution

At least six states—Illinois, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee and Vermont—make all minors immune from prosecution for prostitution; some extend that immunity to related offenses such as pandering, trafficking and procuring prostitutes. In Connecticut, children ages 15 and under are immune from prosecution for prostitution. For 16- and 17-year-olds charged with prostitution, the statute creates a rebuttable presumption that they are victims of trafficking for the purpose of raising an affirmative defense. Once identified as a minor, these laws usually require officials to notify appropriate agencies for protective services.

Affirmative Defense

At least 19 states enable an individual charged with prostitution-related offenses to assert as an affirmative defense, that their actions were the result of being victimized by human trafficking. In 2014, Arizona, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine created an affirmative defense to certain criminal charges for trafficked victims.


Pretrial Diversion

Some states enable minors charged with prostitution and related offenses to be diverted to pretrial programs at the discretion of justice officials. For example, Washington’s law enables prosecutors to divert first time juvenile offenders into programs that provide safe housing, chemical dependency treatment, trauma treatment, employment training and other services. The law also requires data collection for the number of juveniles diverted and their rate of recidivism. In 2014, New York, Ohio and Utah enacted laws to divert certain trafficked youth from the justice system. New York’s law allows judicial officials to convert prostitution and loitering charges for 16- and 17-year-olds into “person in need of supervision” cases, enabling protective services to be provided. Ohio’s law now enables justice officials to accept a defendant’s request for intervention in lieu of conviction if being trafficked was a leading factor in their criminal behavior. Utah’s new law requires police to refer certain trafficked youth to the Division of Child and Family Services.


Record Clearing Policies

At least 15 states enable victims who have previously been convicted of prostitution or related offenses to petition to have their conviction record cleared. These laws provide standards for submitting requests to vacate, expunge or seal certain convictions and standards for justice officials to grant or deny the request. These laws help victims remove criminal records that can make it challenging for them to get a job, get credit and attain housing.


Funding Sources for Services 

States continue to develop protective and rehabilitate services for sexually exploited youth victimized by human trafficking. In order to pay for responsive services, states create funds in their treasury, appropriate funds for services, levy fines for certain sex crimes and use forfeiture procedures for proceeds gained from, or used in, trafficking crimes.


Trafficked Victim Funds

At least 18 states have created funds in their treasury to pay for anti-trafficking efforts. The funds are used for many purposes including to arrest and prosecute child sex traffickers,  provide services for victims, fund parenting skills training, fund services for at-risk youth and fund training for state personnel. In 2014, Arizona, Iowa and New Jersey created funds for trafficked victims.


Legislative Appropriations

State legislatures also appropriate funds to pay for victim’s services. Recent examples of state’s financing services for trafficked victims include Florida, Maine and New York. In 2014, Florida lawmakers appropriated $3 million for safe houses and other rehabilitative services for trafficking victims and Maine appropriated $8,500 from fines levied for certain trafficking and prostitution crimes to their victim’s compensation board. Also this year, New York’s General Assembly provided $348,000 to continue support for their safe harbor services created in 2008.


Imposing Fines on Sex Traffickers

States also generate funds for services by levying fines on sex traffickers and patrons of prostitutes. Some states also provide increased fines for those who commit these crimes against children.  For example, in Louisiana the crime of purchasing commercial sexual activity carries increased fines based on the number of convictions and the age of the person sex is being purchased from. If the person is under 18, the maximum fine that can be imposed is $50,000, and for those who purchase sex from children under 14, the maximum fine is $75,000. California’s law fines those convicted of labor, sex and child traffickers up to $500,000 in addition to providing for prison sentences.



At least 19 states specifically authorize forfeiture for trafficking crimes or direct forfeited proceeds for specific anti-trafficking purposes. For example, California’s law distributes 50 percent of funds forfeited from trafficking crimes to their Victim-Witness Assistance Fund and the other 50 percent to the agency that administers the forfeiture. In 2014, Louisiana added trafficking related offenses including promoting prostitution, soliciting prostitution and prostitution of persons under 18, to a list of sex crimes with specific fund distribution procedures.


Trafficking in Children and Soliciting Sex

Every state has criminal penalties for sex traffickers and many provide penalties for sex solicitors. Some states provide increased criminal penalties for those who commit these crimes against children. For example, in Pennsylvania, the trafficking of adults is a second degree felony, while the trafficking of minors is a first degree felony; and in Mississippi, it is misdemeanor to solicit a prostitute, but if the prostitute is under 18, then solicitation is a felony. In addition to criminal penalties, some states are considering other ways to reduce repeat sex solicitation, including the use of programs often called John Schools.


Programs to Reduce Recidivism for Sex Solicitors

At least eight states authorize the creation or use of John Schools to educate first time offenders on the harms caused by using prostitutes. Provisions in Johns School laws set requirements for program participation and identify funding sources for their operation. Fines levied on johns and others convicted of sex and trafficking crimes are the most common source of program funding. In 2014, Kansas and Louisiana enacted new John School laws. Louisiana’s law does not enable “johns” to participate if they purchased sex from a minor.


Services for Youth 

Trafficked youth suffer mental, physical and emotional trauma as a result of the crimes committed against them. States are making efforts to develop and refine strategies for addressing the needs of trafficked children. Legislation has created pilot sites to investigate causes of trafficking and provide services for its victims, created positions to coordinate state anti-trafficking and victim’s services efforts, created safe houses for sexually exploited youth, created training requirements for state personnel to identify and handle trafficked victims and required the collection of trafficking statistics to better understand these crimes and how to respond effectively.


Pilot Sites

At least three states—California, Minnesota and Washington—have enacted legislation authorizing pilot projects to develop responses for sexually exploited youth. California for example, enabled Los Angeles County and Alameda County to establish a pilot project to develop treatment services for exploited youth. Similarly, Minnesota established a safe harbor pilot program for sexually exploited youth in Ramsey County. The project’s focus is on intervention and prevention methods, training for public officials and service providers and programs that promote positive outcomes for victims. Lessons learned from the project will be used to implement a statewide model protocol.


Coordinate State Trafficking Efforts

Some states have created positions charged with coordinating resources to most effectively address human trafficking.  For example, Mississippi created a statewide human trafficking coordinator position to evaluate their efforts to combat human trafficking. The coordinator collects trafficking data, promotes human trafficking awareness and develops rules for the use of the “Relief for Victims of Human Trafficking Fund” among other duties. Minnesota has a similar position, the director of child sex trafficking prevention, administered under their commissioner of health. Other states, such as Washington, charge similar duties to councils comprised of many stakeholders.


Safe Houses

Safe houses are an option used to care for trafficked youth. They can provide a safe place to stay, child assessment, case management, medical care, substance abuse services, therapy and educational services that transition residents back to the community. At least four states—Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts and New York—address safe houses in statute.


Training for State Personnel

At least 13 states have implemented laws to ensure public officials—including law enforcement, prosecutors, defense counsel, and victim’s advocates—are appropriately trained to identify and handle trafficked youth. New Jersey for example, requires police training courses to include material on responding to the needs of victims of human trafficking and on the assistance services available to them.


Data and Statistics

In order to better understand human trafficking and the effectiveness of efforts to address it, some states have begun to require data collection for relevant trafficking statistics, including the numbers of arrests, prosecutions, and successful convictions of traffickers. Minnesota’s law, passed in 2005, requires their Department of Public Safety to complete regular studies of human trafficking. The reports include statistics on trafficking crimes, trafficked victims, trafficking methods and social factors that contribute to victimization.  Since 2005, the Department has issued five reports, with the next due in September 2014.


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