A new report from the Human Trafficking Institute has listed Virginia 13th on the list of active criminal trafficking cases it’s pursuing at the federal level.
The 2019 Federal Human Trafficking Report lists 13 active cases in Virginia, 12 of them in the Eastern District, which contains many of the state’s most populous urban areas.
The Western District (comprising about 50 counties across the Shenandoah Valley, west-central and southwest regions and about half of Virginia’s central and southside regions) reported one active human trafficking case in federal courts as of the end of 2019, said Kyleigh Feehs, associate legal counsel and co-author of the report.
The case, she said, concerned a drug dealer who exploited four adult victims, forcing them into prostitution so they could pay back the money they owed.
In 2019, federal prosecutors in Virginia charged two new human trafficking cases, ranking the commonwealth 22nd in the nation for new cases that year. Federal courts in Virginia convicted seven defendants on human trafficking charges in 2019, ranking Virginia 12th in the nation for the number of defendants convicted.
All new cases and convictions took place in the Eastern District, the report says.
Sex trafficking has many faces, said Feehs. Though people unfamiliar with the crime might imagine cases of stranger abductions, Feehs said in the U.S. human trafficking largely manifests in criminals who prey on vulnerable individuals such as runaways, undocumented citizens and people struggling with drug addiction.
Nearly 40% of all sex trafficking cases nationwide in 2019 involved a defendant inducing or exploiting a victim’s substance dependency to compel them to engage in commercial sex, Feehs said.
Locations of these crimes are diverse, and prior victims can become victims again, she said.
Though human trafficking often takes place in urban centers, she said it also takes place in agricultural settings, at truck stops and in labor camps, where victims might be trapped in indentured servitude.
“Human trafficking doesn’t require movement,” Feehs said.
Sometimes victims are brought across state lines but many times it’s a matter of coercion, she said.
It takes place “in every state and every industry,” said Feehs.
The 2019 report doesn’t offer reasons for why some states have more cases than others, Feehs said. It’s purely an attempt to view the data and trends that the institute, headquartered in Fairfax, can bring to state and federal legislators and use to influence federal prosecution rates and ultimately cut down on the prevalence of human trafficking in the U.S.
“We’re not looking at prevalence but the federal prosecutorial efforts to hold traffickers accountable,” she said.
“Then we’re able to see how these cases have changed over the years.”
Prosecution of human traffickers has the two-part goal of punishing offenders while also deterring others from committing crimes, she said.
But lack of funding, changes to the priorities of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a lack of visibility can negatively affect the fight against human trafficking.
After the 2018 shutdown of the website Backpage, which had become the largest classified site for buying and selling sex, law enforcement had to catch up with where new cases might be located, Feehs said.
Though Virginia ranks fairly high on the nationwide list of active cases (more than West Virginia, which ranked 39th, but less than Maryland, which ranked sixth), Feehs said numbers have largely been declining in recent years. In 2018, Virginia saw its lowest case numbers in at least five years, she said.
While that seems like it bodes well for Virginia’s safety record, she said it could just as likely be a result of a lack of available prosecutions.
From 2017 to 2019, there was an 85.7% drop (from 14 in 2017 to 2 in 2019) in new federal human trafficking prosecutions in Virginia, she said.
Declines also have been reflected around the country, which she said experienced a 33.5% drop in the number of new federal human trafficking prosecutions between 2017 and 2019.
Trends in new cases from 2015 to 2019 show that Virginia had its highest number of new cases (14) in 2017, just slightly above 2015’s 13 new cases.
Virginia reported seven new cases in 2016, three new cases ain 2018 and two new cases in 2019.
The report reflects that all but one new case in Virginia in the last five years (38 out of 39 cases) involved sex trafficking as opposed to forced labor.
Nationwide, the report lists 271 new defendants in 2019 (down from 287 in 2018) and 606 active cases in 2019 (down from 644 in 2018.)
Of the new criminal cases, 93.8% were sex trafficking cases. Of the 88 new civil cases listed in 2019, about half (48.9%) were sex trafficking cases and the rest (51.1%) were forced labor cases.
U.S. data over five years shows a deep decline in new cases from 224 in 2015 (six of them forced labor cases) to 145 in 2019 (nine of them forced labor.)
Most defendants of active cases are in California, Texas, New York or Pennsylvania, the report shows. The next highest group of active cases by state affects Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, New Mexico, Georgia and Florida.
Wyoming was the only state with no new trafficking cases in 2019, though West Virginia showed no new cases in 2015, 2016 or 2018, with one sex trafficking case in 2017 and two in 2019.
West Virginia is tied with Virginia in 22nd place on the list of new criminal cases in 2019. Maryland is ranked seventh.
Read the report at traffickinginstitute.org/federal-human-trafficking-report-2019.