Human Trafficking Overview


State and federal and officials are working to combat human trafficking and provide services to trafficking survivors.

Federal Efforts

Under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, sex and labor trafficking are considered “severe forms of trafficking in persons,” and are defined as:

  • Sex trafficking: A commercial sex act induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.
  • Labor trafficking: The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

The TVPA, its reauthorizations, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, and the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014, are among the many actions Congress has taken since 2000 to address human trafficking. A May 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified 105 provisions across six federal statutes that establish programs or initiatives to combat traffickers or provide assistance to victims. In the report, the GAO categorized the efforts into eight types of activities: victim services, coordination and information sharing, reporting requirements, training and technical assistance, research, public awareness, criminal justice and penalties and sanctions.

A second GAO report, released in June 2016, in part evaluated federal efforts to understand how pervasive human trafficking is in the United States. The report identified several initiatives currently underway to enhance national trafficking statistics, including the Now You See Me: The Human Trafficking Data Collection Project, which is funded by the federal office of Health and Human Services. Current data, the report noted, is largely generated by federal agencies and their grantees as they collect information on investigations and services provided relevant to trafficking.

For example, the report stated that grantees of the federal Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) provided services to 3,889 individuals who were potential or confirmed survivors of trafficking crimes from July 2014 to June 2015, which is up from 1,462 served from January to December 2012. The GAO also stated that the Federal Bureau of Investigations reported the occurrence of 443 offenses involving human trafficking during 2014, and that the Executive Office for U.S Attorneys reported prosecuting 252 cases during the 2015 fiscal year. Limitations of the data from these sources, as identified in the GAO report, would likely make them ineffective for the purpose of estimating all trafficking activity.

On October 20, 2020, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Chad Wolf announced Thursday the opening of the DHS Center for Countering Human Trafficking, the U.S. government’s first-ever integrated law enforcement operations center directly supporting federal criminal investigations, victim assistance efforts, intelligence analysis, and outreach and training activities related to human trafficking and forced labor.

Moving forward, stakeholders are continuing to build upon current anti-trafficking efforts and to evaluate the effectiveness of different courses of action. An integral part of that work is happening at the state level. 

State Efforts

State legislators, law enforcement, service providers and many other stakeholders are developing policies to effectively prosecute traffickers and provide services to victims. Every state has enacted human trafficking laws, but there are significant differences in the statutes and policies between jurisdictions. Laws criminalize trafficking activity, provide judicial protections for survivors, establish funding sources for anti-trafficking efforts, coordinate stakeholder efforts, regulate businesses to mitigate the impact of trafficking and educate the public on trafficking issues. The links below will take you to an interactive overview of state human trafficking laws and policies. Please see NCSL's State Human Trafficking Enactment Database for information on enacted legislation from 2015-2019.

Criminalization of Trafficking Crimes

State laws establish criminal penalties for traffickers seeking to profit from forced labor or sexual servitude. The laws vary in several ways, including who is defined as a trafficker, what actions constitute trafficking, and the severity of the criminal and financial penalties offenders will face.

See NCSL's 2018 report, "Prosecuting Human Traffickers: Recent Legislative Enactments."

Read more

Survivor Protections in Court

State lawmakers have legislated criminal protections and civil remedies for trafficking survivors in the judicial system. Measures have provided immunity to and diversion from criminal prosecutions as well as affirmative defenses for actions survivors were forced to commit by their traffickers. Some states have laws creating mechanisms to seal, vacate or expunge previous criminal convictions and providing for civil standing and restitution procedures that enable survivors to recover financially from their traffickers.

Read more

Services and Funding for Services

The provision of services to survivors of trafficking is critical, as is the funding for those services. States have long provided many different types of assistance, which vary from state to state. Services include everything from legal services to housing assistance, and employment and vocational training to health care. Funding for these services also varies greatly across states, with some setting up specific funds to address sex trafficking and exploitation and others providing various line items in budget bills.

See NCSL's 2018 report, "Human Trafficking: An Overview of Services and Funding for Survivors."

Read more

Administration and Coordination

State policymakers believe coordination of services between various state and federal agencies is key to effectively respond to human trafficking. Several states have enacted legislation creating statewide work groups, task forces, advisory groups and the like to better coordinate antitrafficking efforts between the criminal justice, juvenile justice and child welfare agencies. The federal Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 (Public Law 113-183) placed requirements upon states to address child sex trafficking of kids under the child welfare agency’s care and supervision.

Read more

Trafficking Prevention, Awareness and Business Regulations

The public is often unaware that trafficking crimes can occur close to home, and that businesses in their neighborhood may be affected by sex and labor trafficking. State actions to raise public awareness of trafficking, and mitigate its influence on commerce, include disseminating information on trafficking crimes, services and prevention efforts, and setting standards in certain industries for licensing, advertising, training and disclosure.

Read more

Additional Resources

NCSL Resources

Other Resources

This webpage was supported by grant number 2015-VF-GX-K021, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.