A Victim-Centered Approach to Sex Trafficking is Critical

Since January is Human Trafficking Prevention and Awareness Month, it is worth repeating for those unfamiliar with this modern-day slavery that human trafficking is the second-largest and the fastest-growing global crime, yielding an estimated $32 billion annually in profits. And the most profitable subcategory of human trafficking, with an estimated 21 million victims worldwide, is sex trafficking of women and children.

Earlier this month, a victim of sex trafficking—then a child, now a 30-year old woman—got a second chance. Her story offers an important lesson, and is reason to commend Congress for its passage last month of the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform legislation which enjoyed rare bipartisan support.

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On January 7, 2019, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam commuted Cyntoia Brown’s life sentence in which she was initially convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery for killing a man who hired her as a prostitute when she was 16 years old. Brown is scheduled to be released from prison later this year.

Since Brown received a commutation from the Governor, her sentence was lessened, but her criminal charges will remain on record since she was not exonerated. Given that she did murder and rob the man who hired her, crimes she never denied committing, the commutation would appear appropriate and just.

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Had Ms. Brown committed her crime this year rather than in 2004, her story would likely have unfolded much differently. Using today’s legal standards, the court would have deliberated over the fact that Brown was a victim of sex trafficking, involuntarily drugged, and subsequently forced into sex work. Her situation, which we criminologists have termed forced criminality, would have constituted a strong mitigating factor that prosecutors and the presiding judge would need to consider.

It is highly unlikely that she would have been convicted of first-degree murder, but also unlikely she would have been found not guilty of all charges. The killing of another person is still a crime with the exception of certain legal defenses and excuses and remains a punishable offense that would have resulted in a prison term.

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Once in prison, however, Ms. Brown would have benefitted from the recently passed criminal justice reform legislation. The First Step Act requires the Department of Justice to develop and apply a risks/needs assessment that is to be used to aid prison officials in assigning prisoners to the most appropriate evidence-based programming. In addition, it empowers the Federal Bureau of Prisons to benefit from similar resources, particularly evidence-based recidivism reduction programs that have been proven effective in reducing repeat-offending.

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In short, Ms. Brown would have likely been convicted of a far-lesser charge than first-degree murder and would have likely been sentenced to a fraction of her original sentence of 51 years. We should certainly celebrate Ms. Brown’s freedom when she is released later this year, and root for her success as she remains on parole for 10 years, completes the required court-ordered counseling sessions and community service, obtains employment, and continues working toward the completion of her bachelor’s degree.

At the same time, we should take from Ms. Brown’s story a fundamental lesson: when victims commit crimes—particularly minors who are forced into their criminality through sex trafficking—our justice system must adopt a victim-centered approach.

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The US Office for Victims of Crime emphasizes that in a victim-centered approach, the victim’s safety and wellbeing take priority in all matters and procedures. Furthermore, victim service providers bring a diversity of specialized service skills, social resources, cultural competence, and a trauma-informed perspective. However, victim service provider and law enforcement partnerships are crucial to developing and maintaining a victim-centered response to human trafficking. Lastly, for human trafficking victims who choose to work with law enforcement, employing a victim-centered approach to criminal investigations is vital to the outcome of a criminal case.

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It is an approach that, for Ms. Brown, was applied far too late—but one that must be applied before the next sex trafficking victim is convicted and sent to prison. The victim-centered approach has been widely accepted as a best practice at the federal level; however, this model still needs to trickle down to the state and local jurisdictions. I suggest that those interested in this particular approach to human trafficking victims, refer to the US Department of Homeland Security's Blue Campaign , which is an exceptional resource, particularly for law enforcement.