arrestedIn the world of human trafficking, there are pockets of hope across the U.S. In Cook County, Ill., Sheriff Tom Dart works relentlessly to improve not only the prosecution of human traffickers, but also the aid that law enforcement brings to victims. Dart began to realize several years ago that prostitutes were cycling through the justice system over and over, receiving no help to stay out of jail.

Knowing that the women are, as he put it, “victims of crimes of violence, who have been through unspeakable horrors and betrayals,” Dart wanted a better way to restore those trapped in prostitution and keep them out of jail.

To do this, he developed the Women’s Justice Program, which employs previously prostituted women to serve as peer counselors to those arrested for prostitution. These counselors work to convince the women to leave prostitution behind when they’re released and provide ongoing counseling and resources to help them do it. Dart knows that women will struggle to trust the police who arrested them. But they might listen to someone who has walked in their shoes and managed to escape the pain and abuse that they feel.


Dart has prioritized the prosecution of “johns” as well. Despite efforts to prosecute pimps, there has been less success there.

The sixth and latest National Day of Johns Arrests in July 2013, a sting operation organized by Dart’s office involving at least 20 law enforcement agencies nationwide, saw its highest number of arrests. However, the number of pimps arrested during each operation is consistently much lower than that of johns arrested.

“We can arrest a lot of pimps, but if the victim says [she] was not victimized then you really have no case,” Anton [Cmdr. Michael Anton of the Cook County Sheriff's Dept.] said. “We really rely on the victim[s] and their talking, [but] most of the time they don’t because of brainwashing [by their pimps]”.

In 2013, Michigan State Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a report making human trafficking a priority for (amongst other areas) law enforcement.

While Michigan’s local law enforcement agencies have won significant victories in the fight against modern-day slavery, human trafficking persists, destroying lives and destabilizing Michigan’s social structures. Its persistence and growth is, in part, a function of the state’s inadequate trafficking response framework. While discrete law enforcement activities contribute meaningfully to the state’s prevention efforts, trafficking deterrence requires a comprehensive strategy—one that identifies existing obstacles and offers collaborative solutions.

The Center for American Progress says educated local law enforcement is one key to successfully combating human trafficking. Lack of training for local law enforcement means local police “miss” human trafficking victims, and fail to get victims help. Instead, victims are treated as criminals. Even teens are seen as being involved in consensual sexual situations.

While law enforcement agencies across the country have made significant advancements in targeting and prosecuting traffickers, many jurisdictions have fallen far behind in terms of how they perceive and treat the underage victims of this crime. While the legal definitions of sex trafficking under federal law and in many states provide that any individual induced or caused to engage in commercial sexual activity who is under a certain age—18 years, according to federal law—is a victim of trafficking, the notion of a teenage prostitute who voluntarily engages in this conduct is a persistent one. Moreover, juvenile prostitution continues to fall under the jurisdiction of juvenile courts in many states, channeling child victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking into the juvenile justice system to be punished for their victimization. The failure to recognize these young people as victims of a serious crime in many jurisdictions means that they are often repeatedly arrested for prostitution, prosecuted, locked up in jails or juvenile detention facilities with dangerous offenders, and released back into the community with nothing more than a criminal record—and frequently more trauma from the experience. And often, their abuser is waiting on the other side to put them right back to “work.”

The Center for American Progress says local law enforcement must also increase pressure on and the prosecution of those on the “demand” side of human trafficking. Far too often, “johns” are sentenced with a misdemeanor and in some cases, receive lighter sentences than the victims.

If we truly want to combat child sex trafficking and eradicate this form of child sexual abuse, we must shift our collective thinking about the role of “johns” and consider them as equally culpable as the traffickers in perpetuating the cycle of exploitation.

While federal law enforcement makes painstaking progress to improve both the prosecution of traffickers and aid to victims, many local law enforcement agencies lag behind. Improving awareness and training of local police is necessary to increase community safety, aid victims and successfully prosecute traffickers. Human trafficking continues to hide in plain sight in our country, and local law enforcement must  focus their vision to see and stop it.

Read “3 Key Challenges in Combating the Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States” at the Center for American Progress.