How effective are human-trafficking laws?
That's essentially the question Colorado College Political Science Assistant Professor Dana Wittmer, along with professors at Texas Christian University and Northeastern University, wanted to answer when they began researching their recently published study.
Funded by the National Institute of Justice, "Identifying Effective Counter-Trafficking Programs and Practices in the U.S.: Legislative, Legal and Public Opinion Strategies that Work" examines states' human-trafficking cases and the impact of anti-trafficking statutes on arrests and prosecutions, and evaluates public opinion on human trafficking.
Among its findings: 90 percent of Americans understand that human trafficking is a modern form of slavery. But we're a lot fuzzier on the finer points of the problem.
Perhaps that shouldn't be remarkable, given that the first state laws against human trafficking — which includes both forced labor and forced sex work — weren't passed until 2003, and the main federal law aimed at trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, has only been around since 2000.
Sixteen years later, reliable data is beginning to emerge to help understand the problem and how best to address it.
Some of the findings are surprising.
The first state laws against trafficking weren't based on any data or best practices, says Wittmer, because they didn't exist.
"States were kind of passing these laws blindly just to sort of keep up with other states," she explains. "I think states at this point have stepped up to the plate in passing laws, but I think there's a lot of room for improvement especially on state investment."
Here's what she means: By 2012, every state but Wyoming had criminalized human trafficking, but a dozen states hadn't taken the extra step of investing money or resources to stop trafficking.
Only three states (Colorado wasn't one of them) had made investments in all six categories named in the study: assisting victims, forming a task force, training law enforcement, reporting on human trafficking, posting the human trafficking hotline number, and utilizing investigative tools, like the ability to wiretap.
That's important because Wittmer's study found that, "More comprehensive laws increase arrests and prosecutions for human trafficking, but harsher criminal penalties do not."
So, for instance, requiring that the National Human Trafficking Hotline number (888/373-7888) be posted in public places was the most important provision to increase arrests.
Creating state task forces on human trafficking was the strongest predictor of prosecution of a suspect.
Both safe harbor laws (which shield underage trafficking victims from prosecution for crimes like prostitution) and civil action provisions (which allow trafficking victims to sue for damages) were found to increase arrests and prosecutions.
The study, which covered the years 2003 through 2012, examined laws in every state, looked at the arrest outcomes of 3,225 human trafficking suspects (including 479 prosecutions), and included a public opinion survey of a representative 2,000 Americans in spring of 2014.
Wittmer says she thinks the area with the most potential for improvement is public perception.
"The public is key for passing better laws," she says. "The public can put pressure on legislatures."
More than 80 percent of the public has "some" or "a lot" of concern about trafficking according to the study, though that doesn't translate into personal action.
The public also holds a lot of incorrect beliefs about trafficking, including: 71 percent believe trafficking is just another word for smuggling (Homeland Security defines human trafficking as "a form of modern-day slavery, and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to exploit human beings for some type of labor or commercial sex purpose") and 92 percent believe that trafficking victims are almost always female (men and boys are also victims).
An experiment embedded in the opinion poll found that respondents had the most concern and wanted the most governmental intervention for victims who are male minors.
If advocates have their way, the next human trafficking law to pass in Colorado will likely be a safe harbor law (to shield trafficked youths from criminal prosecution).
Debbie Manzanares, board member for the Human Trafficking Task Force of Southern Colorado, says her group really wants to see a safe harbor law pass, and she thinks it's an easy sell to both Republicans and Democrats.
"Both sides of the [political] aisle can get on board and collaborate," she says.
Billie McIntire, executive director of Social Wellness Advocacy Network (SWAN) Colorado, also wants to see Colorado pass a safe harbor law to protect youths from prosecution.
"Right now," she says, "some kids are charged."
Safe harbor laws, however, differ from state to state, and as far as Wittmer knows, no research has explored which, if any, is the most effective. Comparing and contrasting each of them just wasn't something Wittmer was able to do in her recent study.
"Given this massive amount of data for this starting point [study]," she says, "we had to paint in broad strokes." But, she adds, looking at which versions of laws work best to stop trafficking "may be a next great step in research."