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OPINION

Lack of enforcement enables sex buyers, human traffickers

Posted on July 24, 2021

OpinionColumns

Tara Baker

Tara Baker

In the United States, various institutions and groups have made efforts to combat the problem of human trafficking. As first responders, local law enforcement agencies play a critical role in identifying and responding to human trafficking cases.

However, the capabilities of law enforcement to respond to the needs of trafficking victims and adequately enforce the law surrounding sex trafficking needs to be addressed.

Officials throughout the criminal justice system are frustrated by the lack of legal consequences for sex buyers, which begs the question: why aren’t these laws being enforced?

One study suggests several reasons: local law enforcement is ill prepared to recognize human trafficking victims or investigate this emerging crime even when signs of this crime are in plain sight; local law enforcement believes that trafficking is not a problem in their jurisdictions and is best addressed by federal law enforcement; most local law enforcement is not truly informed/educated about what human trafficking really entails; the majority of local law enforcement agencies do not have set protocols and/or procedures and trainings specifically designed or developed for human trafficking; and local law enforcement feels little direct responsibility for investigating human trafficking cases.

Also, prostitution has largely moved out of the public eye with the help of technology, migrating from street solicitations to online advertising, making it more difficult to discover.

At least one out of 10 American men have admitted to buying sex, according to Michael Shively, a Cambridge-based researcher who studies sex buyers. The majority are educated and have formal partners. Additionally, the profile of the typical sex buyer is often not unlike that of the police officers, prosecutors and judges they face. Perhaps because of this, many men are still simply let go by police without charges.

Shively, who runs a research site called DemandForum.net, said the lack of enforcement is partly due to the fact that police departments are struggling financially.

Law enforcement agencies are rewarded when they make a big drug bust. Therefore, drug busts are a priority. How do we make recovering human trafficking victims and arresting traffickers and sex buyers a bigger priority?

Not only is there a failure to prosecute buyers and consumers, but victims and survivors are being criminalized in their place. The lack of guilty charges and hefty fines for men accused of buying sex is replayed over and over in courts across the state.

North Carolina has tried to tackle this issue, but with limited success. In 2019, the N.C. Human Trafficking Commission advocated for a change in the definition of sexual servitude. The purpose was to expand the definition of sexual servitude (a felony) to apply to all instances of buyer conduct. Unfortunately, law enforcement officers have not been trained on this change to the statute. Instead, it appears that on the rare occasions that sex buyers are arrested, they are arrested for “solicitation,” which is only a misdemeanor.

Laws are useless if they are not enforced. Traffickers and sex buyers have no reason to change their behaviors. While legislation and law enforcement have important roles to play in holding perpetrators accountable, it seems clear that entities outside of government are necessary to be successful in this battle.

Traffickers prey on the most vulnerable members of communities, and organizations like N.C. Stop Human Trafficking (and the other 90 anti-human trafficking organizations in the state) care for and raise awareness for those who are most vulnerable to this exploitation. Effective, enforced laws are important, but supporting the efforts of organizations like N.C. Stop Human Trafficking can work to stop trafficking before it even begins.

Tara Baker is a policy specialist at N.C. Stop Human Trafficking.

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