Criminal justice stakeholders, including law enforcement and prosecutors, face challenges in understanding, identifying, and responding to human trafficking cases. Past research shows that criminal justice stakeholders often harbor misconceptions about human trafficking and may view survivors as “illegal immigrants” or as complicit in their victimization, conflate trafficking with undocumented migration and prostitution, and hold negative stereotypes toward survivors. Despite this, little is known about how criminal justice stakeholders perceive their work on human trafficking cases and how they conceptualize “justice” for survivors. To improve criminal justice responses to trafficking, it is important to understand how those tasked with responding to human trafficking cases understand justice and how their understandings either fit with or diverge from those of survivors.
The Bending Towards Justice: Perceptions of Justice among Human Trafficking Survivors study is the first to ask survivors, criminal justice actors, and service providers how they perceive survivor interactions with the justice system and how they define justice in human trafficking cases. A key finding is that most human trafficking survivors do not desire traditional retributive justice remedies, such as incarceration and punishment, and instead view justice as preventing their traffickers from doing more harm. Criminal justice stakeholders, on the other hand, view justice in terms of successful prosecutions, even when they recognize and sympathize with survivors’ critiques of the justice system. Drawing from qualitative interviews with 100 law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and service providers and 80 survivors of sex and labor trafficking in across eight diverse metropolitan sites in the US, this brief documents stakeholders’ perceptions of justice to understand how they align or diverge with those of survivors and how any noted discrepancies may influence policy and practice.
The Criminal Justice Approach to Human Trafficking
The criminal justice system tasks justice system actors with identifying, classifying, and responding to human trafficking cases (Jordan 2002). This is the dominant approach to addressing human trafficking in the United States despite a growing body of research that suggests that criminal justice actors often lack the knowledge needed to adequately respond to these cases.
Studies suggest that criminal justice stakeholders are largely unaware of the prevalence and nature of human trafficking, which impedes their ability to identify and respond to survivors. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors often assume that human trafficking is not a local problem and thus does not need to be addressed within their communities (Farrell, Pfeffer, and Bright 2015). Surveys of state and local prosecutors reveal that 68 percent do not consider human trafficking to be a problem in their jurisdictions (Clawson et al. 2008), and over 70 percent of local, county, and state law enforcement agencies perceive human trafficking as rare or nonexistent in their communities (Farrell, McDevitt, and Fahy 2008). Studies also show that law enforcement and prosecutors struggle to understand the nature of trafficking itself and are often uncertain how to distinguish between consent and coercion in trafficking cases (Farrell and Pfeffer, 2014). Additional research has found that when criminal justice actors do respond to cases of human trafficking, their focus is limited to a single form of trafficking (i.e., the sex trafficking of US citizen children) (Farrell, Pfeffer, and Bright 2015). Further, law enforcement officers often believe trafficking is the same as sex work and are likely to use traditional vice investigative strategies (such as undercover sting operations) that may result in the arrest and retraumatization of survivors (Farrell, Pfeffer, and Bright 2015).
Research also indicates that some criminal justice stakeholders harbor misconceptions and stereotypes about human trafficking survivors that may prevent them from properly identifying and responding to cases. Qualitative studies reveal that law enforcement officers’ perceptions of human trafficking are based largely on media portrayals and often conform to popular myths (Farrell, Pfeffer, and Bright 2015). Criminal justice stakeholders may view human trafficking survivors as “illegal immigrants” or complicit in their own victimization, conflate trafficking with undocumented migration and prostitution, and hold negative views toward survivors of trafficking, particularly those who do not fit their perception of an “ideal victim” (Aronowitz 2003; Farrell, Owens, and McDevitt 2013; Farrell, Pfeffer, and Bright 2015; Jordan 2002; Pourmokhtari 2015; Srikantiah 2007). Findings also indicate that prosecutors who are unsure about the credibility of a survivor may rely on stereotypes about appropriate victim behavior and incorporate their judgements on the survivor’s race, class, and gender instead of relying strictly on legal assessment of their case (Farrell, Owens, and McDevitt 2013).
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