Federal prosecutors in Maryland charged more defendants in human trafficking cases last year than in all but one other federal district — the Southern District of New York, according to a new study by the Human Trafficking Institute.
Of the 15 people charged last year in federal human trafficking cases in Maryland, 14 had sex-trafficking-related charges. One person faced a labor-trafficking charge.
Across the nation, 297 defendants were charged in sex-trafficking and labor-trafficking cases in 59 federal districts, according to the institute’s report, which only looked at federal cases. It did not reflect state prosecutions for human trafficking.
Federal trafficking cases have skyrocketed since Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, criminalizing human trafficking.
That year, there were only four federal human-trafficking cases, according to the Human Trafficking Institute. In 2007, when the Justice Department created the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, there were 55. In 2018, there were 171 cases.
Robert K. Hur, the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland, said that though he hadn’t read the report, human trafficking is a priority for his office and that Maryland has relatively high numbers in part due to strong partnerships with local law enforcement and victims’ service groups. The state’s central location along Interstate 95 and the Eastern seaboard is also a factor, he said.
Many of the cases Hur said his office works on deal with the sex trafficking of underage girls. Their traffickers often use drug addictions or physical force to keep them under control, he said.
Baltimore’s Human Trafficking Collaborative hosts an event next month to help people who are typical targets for being forced into labor and sexual exploitation. The year-old organization has one major hurdle: people who are most vulnerable often don’t know it until it's too late.
Criminal justice professor Jay S. Albanese with Virginia Commonwealth University said Maryland’s relatively high ranking also likely speaks to the dedication of its federal prosecutors in investigating and prosecuting these more complicated crimes. Trafficking cases, he explained, may require prolonged surveillance and source development to prove that there was force, fraud or coercion. Other investigators could stop short and charge offenders with crimes that require fewer elements of proof, such as running a prostitution business.
“It could actually be good news,” Albanese said of Maryland’s numbers.
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Albanese said this is due in part to the more secretive nature of labor trafficking, which makes it harder to track and prosecute. He said unlike sex trafficking, which requires regular interfacing with the public, labor traffickers may more easily keep victims hidden on farms or inside homes with less interaction with the public.