A study conducted by a team at UNM’s College of Nursing has revealed interesting trends in the rising number of U.S. sex trafficking cases, and how they are being prosecuted.
The study analyzed the rate of charges filed by federal prosecutors in sex trafficking and related cases across the United States.
According to the study’s regression models, there was a significant increase in charges filed from the 1994 to 2007. However, this increase was slowed following the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000.
The results also indicated an inverse relationship between sex trafficking charges filed and immigration charges, suggesting that prosecutors may be substituting sex trafficking charges with less severe, but easier to prosecute immigration charges.
Shana Judge, an assistant professor at UNM’s College of Nursing, said she initiated the study after seeing the community-level impacts of prostitution during her time as a law student working in an Albuquerque law clinic.
“I was really struck by some of the prostitutes we represented in misdemeanor court. It was always in the back of my mind,” Judge said. “So, in graduate school, when I was at the University of North Carolina, the director of the Women's Center sponsored this conference on sex trafficking that I attended.”
Judge said it was these experiences that inspired her to incorporate sex trafficking research into her dissertation.
“It brought back that experience I’d had as a law student here at UNM,” she said.
After receiving a grant from the National Institute of Justice, Judge began to study the impact of major federal policy changes in sex trafficking cases.
With the help of colleague Blake Boursaw, a statistician and applied mathematician at UNM’s College of Nursing, they were able to refine Judge’s initial analysis by using a complex statistical model, she said.
The model allowed them to control for factors like district trends, prosecutor experience and changes in population, she said.
With these controls in place and using information from a federal data program, Judge said they found several unexpected trends, one of these being that the TVPA may have served to lessen the increase of new sex trafficking cases, she said.
“All of these resources that the government put in place might’ve helped to mitigate an increase in new cases. They are putting more emphasis on victim services. There are more resources given to local law enforcement,” Judge said.
“When you see this trend increasing pretty sharply and then the policy is put into place and the trend starts to level off, then you think it’s possible that the law has had an impact in helping to decrease that rate,” she said.
Judge was also curious about trends in specific areas like New Mexico, she said, and the study revealed the state had a relatively low number of charges filed.
When looking to explain this variance, Judge said she noticed its connection with immigration charges.
What may be happening, she said, is when there’s a lot of immigration charges, if a case has both a sex trafficking and an immigration component, the immigration charges are easier to prove.
“Prosecutors may just be saying, 'Look, we can dispose of this case and get a conviction on the immigration charge.’ So we see that as the immigration charges increase, the proportion of sex trafficking charges decreases,” Judge said. “That’s what we could be seeing in New Mexico”.
With these conclusions, Judge also said that several other questions and difficulties arose.
In attempting to control for demographics, she realized through anecdotal evidence that the victims and perpetrators tend to be disproportionately non-white, she said. However, finding empirical evidence for this proved difficult.
“I’d like to get at more of what’s going on with changes in the victims. Especially in areas of extreme poverty where it might be easier to recruit people into commercial sex businesses,” Judge said. “There are some disappointments when you think there is a lot more to discover here. But with the data and models we had, we couldn’t quite get at it”.
Judge hopes to continue her research into the victim demographic and immigration pieces of the study, she said, as well as considering rates of sex trafficking cases surrounding military bases.
She and Boursaw are currently working on a second paper analyzing these factors more closely.