Fighting Human Trafficking

Research shows more comprehensive – not harsher – legislation curbs human trafficking.

(This article by Laura Snyder originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of “TCU Magazine.”)

A federally funded research report shows that the severity of criminal penalties for human trafficking has no effect on the number of arrests and prosecutions for the crime.

“More comprehensive laws increase arrests and prosecutions for human trafficking, but harsher criminal penalties do not. In other words, it is more important that state human trafficking legislation be comprehensive across all categories rather than being extremely harsh in only one category,” wrote Vanessa Bouché, assistant professor of political science, along with two partners in the report’s summary.

Photo of Vanessa Bouché

Vanessa Bouché’s research shows that only some states are developing expertise in charging human trafficking offenders. (courtesy photo)

With a $339,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice, the three researchers examined U.S. anti-human trafficking efforts across the country for the report, “Identifying Effective Counter-Trafficking Programs and Practices in the U.S.: Legislative, Legal and Public Opinion Strategies that Work.” The report’s findings were based on more than two years of data collection and analysis of state laws, criminal prosecutions and public opinion.

Bouché and her research colleagues from Northeastern University and Colorado College found that the level of fiscal and human resources invested to combat human trafficking most significantly predict state-level arrests and prosecutions. Some remedies, especially civil action and safe-harbor provisions, resulted in more human trafficking arrests and prosecutions.

“What is perhaps most surprising is that harsher criminal penalties have no impact on the number of arrests and prosecutions for human trafficking across the states,” said Bouché. “These results suggest that, while harsher criminal sentences may be an ‘easy sell’ for state legislatures, it does not produce law enforcement outcomes. Instead, when legislatures put state resources behind combating human trafficking, it signals to law enforcement that this is a state priority.”

The researchers conducted an in-depth examination of state cases in which suspects were charged specifically under the state human trafficking statute. Identifying 479 state human trafficking prosecutions between 2003 and 2012, the study found that only a few states developed expertise in charging offenders. One state, California, charged 39 percent of all identified suspects in the data sample, while Texas charged 9 percent.

Read more in “TCU Magazine.”