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The case against Carlos Silot, whom police last year accused of running a brothel near Patterson Park, seemed clear cut. Officers put his rented rowhouse under surveillance, then watched as more than a dozen men entered and left over a span of hours. When detectives searched the house they found lists of customers, condoms, photographs, money, business cards and two women from Mexico who said Mr. Silot brought them there to have sex with customers. They were arrested for prostitution, and Mr. Silot was charged with "pandering" - a misdemeanor offense.

Still, on paper, the case looked like a slam-dunk for the prosecution. Yet it fell apart this week, and for an all-too-predictable reason: The women refused to testify against him. In fact, they were nowhere to be found.

How could anyone have expected otherwise? The women were illegal immigrants who had been cut off from their families and made to endure countless deprivations. Last April, when their case first came to trial, their lawyer claimed they were tricked into coming here and that they were held as virtual captives in the Patterson Park house. They couldn't possibly expect that testifying against the man they say was responsible would turn out well, especially after learning that the state's case against Mr. Silot was already shaky because police had mishandled or lost key pieces of evidence against him.

What assurances could the Baltimore state's attorney's office have made that it would protect these women? It can't have helped that prosecutors initially charged them with prostitution - even though they were the victims.

In recent years, federal prosecutors have had notable success prosecuting sex-traffickers who exploit women and girls through force, fraud or coercion. The U.S. attorney's office can bring to bear more resources than local authorities to investigate alleged crimes. Federal laws for such crimes are much stricter, and the federal government can provide legal status for sex-trafficking victims and help them rebuild their lives.

But the feds can't handle every sex-trafficking case that comes up, which is why local prosecutors took the lead on Mr. Silot's case. And the outcome points up not only the police's bungling of the evidence needed to secure a conviction but also the clumsy way officials responded to the victims of sex-trafficking, as well as the disparity in penalties for traffickers who exploit children versus those whose victims are adults.

Since 2007, child sex trafficking has been a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison in Maryland. But state law still treats trafficking in adult women as a misdemeanor; even if Mr. Silot had been convicted of pandering, he would have served no more than 10 years. Not every case of pandering involves force, fraud or coercion, but for those that do, the penalty for adult and child sex-trafficking shouldn't be so disparate.

Moreover, police need better training to recognize the signs of sex-trafficking and to protect its victims rather than treat them as criminals. They should know when to call in specialized investigative units and how to put victims in touch with nonprofit groups that offer counseling and other services. It's a lot easier to slap a prostitution charge on a frightened woman who may not speak English well or even know the name of the city where she has been brought than it is to put her pimp behind bars. But that's too often the way sex-trafficking cases are treated, and it needs to change.

Readers respond

The news that a credible sex trafficking case "fell apart" due to a lack of testimony from two victims is unsurprising at best. Both foreign national and U.S. citizen victims of sex and labor trafficking face enormous obstacles as they attempt to leave (or simply survive) unimaginable, often terrifying circumstances.

However, rather than cast blame on prosecutors, it is more productive to understand that in Maryland, local, state and federal law enforcement officers; advocates; and legislative experts have formed the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force to assist victims and ensure justice, including successful prosecution. This body is able to serve victims and get the word out about the scourge of sex and labor trafficking in Maryland.

Let's put aside our differences and focus on the real enemy - male and female traffickers, from this country and elsewhere, who ruthlessly exploit child, teen and adult victims - and on real solutions, which always involve working together as one.

Sidney Ford

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