Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Why are We Prosecuting Sex Trafficking Victims?

Nate Frierson


By Nate Frierson

September 29, 2014


Human trafficking, a form of modern day slavery, is a horrific reality in the world today. Girls, boys, men, and women are tricked, seduced, and threatened into forced servitude of different types, with the most infamous being sex slavery. Unfortunately, we don’t have many credible estimates about the true size of the problem, and a huge part of this tragedy takes place in the United States, with an estimated 20,000 children forced into prostitution by human trafficking networks each year.

Human trafficking has received a great deal of publicity recently, with many groups and individuals raising awareness, in addition to law enforcement and government attempting to crack down on traffickers. A few months ago, several bills passed through the House of Representatives that were targeted at slowing human trafficking in the United States. While these efforts should be applauded, another case of injustice in human trafficking is often overlooked-- the way the criminal justice system treats victims of trafficking.

When the traffickers are caught and victims rescued, the laws governing these situations are not always just. Victims are often originally prosecuted as criminals in many states, making it so that the courts are now punishing the very people they are trying to protect. Even if these prosecuted victims manage to overcome their traumatic backgrounds while surviving life in the justice system, they have a criminal record when they attempt to re-enter society. In 2011, the Criminal Court of Queens County in New York highlighted this problem, noting that “victims of sex trafficking who are forced into prostitution are frequently arrested for prostitution-related offenses and saddled with the criminal record. They are blocked from decent jobs and other prospects of rebuilding their lives. Even after they escape from sex trafficking, the criminal record victimizes them for life.”

On top of this, many of these victims are under the age of eighteen. In the case of sex trafficking, this leads to the question of whether a minor can be prosecuted for an offense he or she is not even old enough to consent to. The immediate response is often to simply decriminalize underage prostitution entirely. However, this problem is more complicated than it seems, as the State of New Jersey found in 2011. When New Jersey attempted to implement this strategy of decriminalization, the state could no longer prosecute the pimps or johns either, because it had inadvertently decriminalized underage pimping.

Government has a clear role to play in rectifying these injustices. Because traffickers intentionally target vulnerable victims that fit certain characteristics, those most at risk for trafficking are youth who are homeless, runaways, members of the foster care system, and children who have been abused in the past. Much of the work to combat this trend must be done by government at the state level. Since each state has a unique set of criminal justice and juvenile justice procedures, each state must develop and implement its own process for tackling these problems.

One successful approach has been the implementation of Safe Harbor laws. These laws allow states to treat victims of trafficking differently than they would other offenders. For example, underage victims may be sent to residential rehabilitative programs instead of simply being assigned to a juvenile correctional facility. However, as of March 2014, only twelve states had fully implemented Safe Harbor laws. Another way of protecting these victims is to prosecute them initially, but then include provisions for trafficking victims that allow for criminal charges to be removed from their records. New York was the first state to do this; now thirteen other states have done so as well.

Non-profit organizations, often backed by churches and supported by individual volunteers, also play an important role. These groups are particularly crucial in response to caring for trafficking victims. Victims often end up in foster care or the juvenile justice system, exactly where they were targeted by traffickers in the first place. Some estimates claim that there are fewer than 100 beds across the country specifically designated for the thousands of trafficking victims being identified every year. The National Survey of Residential Programs for Victims of Sex Trafficking records that twenty-eight states have no residential programs for victims of sex trafficking and have no plans to open any. In light of this, community-based groups are essential to help care for, minister to, and love these victims.

One example of a faith-based organization doing its best to respond to this need is The Samaritan Women in Baltimore, MD. Women who have suffered as victims of trafficking learn farming and culinary skills, as well as receive help in completing their high school or college education. The combined efforts of groups like this one, alongside state governments exercising their legitimate authority to protect their citizens, can go a long way towards making right the treatment of trafficking victims once they have been rescued.  

A version of this article first appeared on, an online journal of the Center for Public Justice dedicated to engaging young Christian thinkers in a conversation on what it means to do public justice.


- Nate Frierson is a senior at Covenant College.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”