228 – Human Trafficking Institute Analyzes Federal Human Trafficking Criminal and Civil Prosecutions

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak interview Victor Boutros to examine the recent developments of this issue. Victor serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the Human Trafficking Institute, which he helped to co-found in 2015. They review the trends found in the Institute’s 2019 Federal Human Trafficking Report.

Victor Boutros

Chief Executive Officer Victor serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the Human Trafficking Institute, which he helped to co-found in 2015. Prior to his role at the Institute, he served as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit and trained law enforcement from different parts of the world on how to investigate and prosecute human trafficking. He is co-author with Gary Haugen of The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence (Oxford Press). In 2016, Victor and Gary received the Grawemeyer Prize for Ideas Impacting World Order, awarded annually to the authors of one world-changing book based on originality, feasibility, and potential impact. Victor is a graduate of Baylor University, Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Chicago.

Key Points

  • The Human Trafficking Institute creates an annual report to provide policymakers, government leaders, and practitioners a common set of data on what human trafficking looks like at the federal level to better identify trends, make arguments, and inform policies.
  • In the 2019 report, there is an emphasis on the trend of a decrease in criminal prosecution and a significant increase in civil cases.
  • In order to solve the problem at its source, we need to consider ways to increase the risk and the cost for traffickers engaging in the crime.
  • As the anti-trafficking movement matures, it becomes increasingly important to have rigorous, clear data, which becomes the knowledge base to make wise policy and legal decisions.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 228 -Human Trafficking Institute Analyzes Federal Human Trafficking Criminal and Civil Prosecutions.

Production Credits [00:00:13] Produced by Innovate Learning, Maximizing Human Potential.

Dave [00:00:33] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:39] My name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:41] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Today, we have a return guest with someone who’s just has a tremendous amount of experience, is going to help us to really look at some of the recent developments, also to help us to really consider and look at the perspective from federal human trafficking prosecutions. I’m so glad to welcome back to the show, Victor Boutros. Victor serves as Chief Executive Officer of the Human Trafficking Institute, which he helped co-found in 2015. Prior to the role at the Institute, he served as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice’s human trafficking prosecution unit and trained law enforcement from different parts of the world on how to investigate and prosecute human trafficking. He is co-author with Gary Haugen of The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence from Oxford Press. In 2016, Victor and Gary received the Grawemeyer Prize for Ideas Impacting World Order, awarded annually to the authors of one world-changing book based on originality, feasibility, and potential impact. Victor is a graduate of Baylor, Harvard University, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. Victor, we’re so glad to have you back.

Victor [00:01:59] Thank you. It’s a privilege to be with you all again.

Sandie [00:02:02] So, we’re going to dive right in because the latest version of the Human Trafficking Institute report came out not too long ago. And first of all, I love how you guys use graphics because you take concepts that are difficult for the non-legal person to understand and to see the changes in just a glimpse. So, thank you for using so many infographics. And if anybody wants to see this report, we’ll have a link in the show notes as well. So, let’s talk about the goal of the report and what makes it so unique this year.

Victor [00:02:42] Yeah. Thank you for saying that. We do spend a fair bit of time trying to think about how to visually present the information. We have an incredible graphic artist who has been just a huge help over the years in helping us to refine the visuals and make sure that they’re easy to consume for folks. So, I appreciate you saying that. In fact, one of the focuses of this year’s report was to do a little bit of a redesign structurally to make it more readable and digestible for the average reader to consume and understand the data really easily and simply. And so, in terms of the goal of the report, the report really came out of what we perceived as a gap in the trafficking space. We felt like there was a real need to have very clear data on what human trafficking looks like at the federal level here in the U.S. So, we wanted to be able to put out that data in order for policymakers, for government leaders, and for practitioners, one, to be able to see trend lines that are happening and identify those trends as they’re happening, but also to be able to make arguments based on data so that their policy arguments are now sort of grounded in a common set of data and that we’re kind of all reading from the same sheet of music. So, that was a big part of it to kind of fill that gap for reliable data. We want to be able to answer some key questions about what the federal government was doing to hold traffickers accountable, like how many cases were filed each year, what types of cases, what are the dominant business models that are being used, how long does it take for these cases to resolve, what are the highest performing districts, what are the lowest-performing districts, and how many traffickers are being convicted. So, it’s been an intense process. It really involves a year-long process of data collection and analysis by a small army of attorneys and law students, led by some of the key attorneys at the institute who really are the architects of this and put it all together. And so, the final product is hopefully a very readable and digestible set of key trendlines that is available online and on our Website at TraffickingInstitute.org.

Sandie [00:04:50] Alright. So, you mentioned this about how long it takes to resolve the case. And I think that is a really important thing for us to begin to understand, it’s not quick. It doesn’t fill one series in a TV show, and it’s done in 45 minutes. So, on one of the cases in the report, it says, twenty-seven months. Can you kind of walk us through that timeline and especially pay attention to the different actors that collaboration required? And if you have any kind of sense of the cost, that would be helpful, too.

Victor [00:05:31] Yeah, it’s a great question. I think these cases do take quite a significant period of time to resolve. So, the numbers that we track in the Federal Human Trafficking report are the time that a defendant is initially charged with an offense to the time that that defendant is fully resolved, which includes exhausting any appeal options that they have. And so, twenty-seven months, or two years, is the average length of time that case takes. And that partly reflects the fact that very often when you have an initial charge filed against the defendant, you’re still investigating the case. And we have sometimes what’s called a place holder indictment that is there to allow you to continue the investigation, allow the case to develop, identify the victims. Often victims are mistrustful of law enforcement at the beginning. And so, there’s a huge, lengthy process of building trust with victims, that report building takes time. And as the report grows, more information comes out that helps you understand the shape of your case and what pieces of evidence are going to be most useful in that case. So, it’s not unusual that you would have a second indictment or sometimes a third indictment that comes out as the case develops and the evidence crystallizes around what you’re going to put forward as your core theory of the case and which witnesses are going to form the key pieces of your case. And you asked about the other actors involved, and that is really key. This is something that perhaps more so than many other types of criminal investigations or prosecutions really requires a larger set of key actors to be successful. So, one of the key actors, of course, is that we might expect is the federal/investigative agent and that sometimes is a team, as well as the federal prosecutor. But there’s a third actor, a victim witness coordinator, which is really essential in this process. And the victim-witness coordinator is responsible for really thinking through a lot of the logistics and services that victims are likely to need. And quarterbacking that care with a group of providers who often nonprofits or NGOs that are providing that care. And that is a critical component of this process. And so, it’s really a collaborative effort to care for the victims, make sure they’re getting the care they need as the case moves forward. And so, it takes time to put all those pieces together and get the case into shape and the witnesses ready to testify at trial.

Sandie [00:08:09] Wow. So, you have to have a lot of dedication and perseverance to stay the course. Okay, so you used the language victim. And before I get feedback from people, “no, we want to call them survivors.” Can you explain to our listeners why we’re using victim language?

Victor [00:08:27] So, victim language is often sometimes used just as part of the statutory framework. And so, on the legal side, they are referred to as victims, although in other contexts outside the sort of legal framework, we do talk about survivor informed care. And we talk about survivors.

Sandie [00:08:48] But it’s kind of complicated when our legal language embedded in laws and policies, is still framing it as victims. And so sometimes, especially my students are outraged that the leaders aren’t using survivor language. But we have to make those kinds of incremental changes, and it has to happen in an environment of changing the language in the documents and in the laws. So, those are some things that just feel complicated. We can’t make sweeping decisions because there are so many other people that are involved in the process and have to follow those languages. And a lot of the resources we’ve discovered are embedded in victim language. So, for instance, here in California, our California Victim Compensation Program isn’t a survivor compensation program. You have to fill out paperwork that you were a victim. So, those are language considerations that we have to think through and not make that the big issue. We just need to be focused on how we’re going to move forward and resolve those cases. So, one of the things that I saw in your report this year was a big focus on even though we had a decrease in criminal prosecution, there was a significant increase in civil cases. Can you explain that? And is that a good thing? Is it a bad thing? How do you see that?

Victor [00:10:29] I think it’s a really good thing that there is a companion civil statute out there to try and recover against alleged traffickers, and it’s good to see that that tool is being more frequently used. But I think that’s a promising increase to see that those are going up. You know, I think historically we’ve seen the lion’s share of activity on the criminal side. And so, it’s encouraging to see that traffickers are being held accountable on the civil side. And, of course, the civil standard of proof is lower than the criminal standard of proof. In a civil case, you’re only required to prove your case by a preponderance of the evidence, which is to say that each element is proving to be more likely true than not true. Whereas on the criminal side, there’s a much higher threshold of having to prove things beyond a reasonable doubt. So, I do think that’s an arena where there could be some additional accountability for traffickers. And it’s particularly important in the trafficking context because trafficking is an economic crime. And so, as you create economic disincentives to engage in that crime, whether those are criminal or civil, you are driving up the risk of engaging the crime for traffickers. And that’s where you start to see drops in the prevalence of trafficking. So, I do think that’s an encouraging trend.

Sandie [00:11:48] So, economic disincentives, talk a little bit more about how a trafficker might process that.

Victor [00:11:56] So, traffickers are really engaged in this crime to make money. That really is the dominant motive that drives the trafficker. And so, if I’m a trafficker and I’m trying to make money, I might do that through commercial sex, which we call sex trafficking. Or I might do it through some other industry, a restaurant, a brick kiln, or an agricultural enterprise, which we typically call labor trafficking. Those are kind of the two big categories of trafficking that we look at. And in either case, it’s sort of the same basic business model, which is, I could use people who are, in a sense, choosing to work for me because I’m paying them some kind of competitive wage to keep them from going somewhere else, that they’re economically incentivized to work for me. Or I could use force, threats, violence, coercion, or some combination of those things, including nonviolent coercion. But I’m using different forms of coercion to compel them to work for me and to prevent them from leaving. Well, if there’s no practical consequence for engaging in the coercive schemes than traffickers realize we’re just going to make more money. All your labor costs magically get transformed into profits, so you make more money. And that’s why where enforcement is low, you see that business of trafficking just explode because traffickers have every incentive to prefer to engage in force if there’s no meaningful risk that bad things will happen if you do. And so that’s one of the reasons why it is so important to increase enforcement risk because traffickers have varying levels of almost like an investment world. You talk about how risk-sensitive are you or what’s your risk tolerance? Traffickers may have varying levels of risk tolerance, but if enforcement risk is effectively zero, then they’re all engaging in the crime because it’s worth it, even if their risk tolerance is low. If we can increase enforcement risk even modestly, we can thin out a significant group of risk-sensitive traffickers who are only willing to engage in the crime if they know there’s zero chance that they will get in trouble for it. And so that’s why it is so important to be thinking about, in addition to doing the critically important work of building out awareness and caring for victims or survivors who were trafficked but now are not. We also need to think about what are the ways that we can increase the risk and the cost for traffickers engaging in the crime. Because if we don’t do that, then they just will find a new set of vulnerable individuals to exploit. And so, you end up in this sort of bottomless pit of need where there are just more traffickers exploiting more individuals, who then need more and more support and services. And so one of our goals at the institute was to think about how do we move upstream and really hit the problem at its source, which is really the trafficker, because if we can stop the traffickers from making that decision to use force, threats, violence, and coercion, then not only do we spare their current set of individuals that they’re exploiting, but we also can spare a future stream of vulnerable individuals from being exploited in the first place.

Sandie [00:15:10] Wow. So, the ideas around economic disincentives also move over into my world where we’re talking about survivor support because that’s the pool that we access for restitution. And so, can you kind of explain how that works in the prosecution? How do we get restitution for our victims, our survivors?

Victor [00:15:38] Yes. So, restitution is actually part of the criminal sentence in a trafficking case. And so, there’s a provision in the law that requires mandatory restitution for people who have been trafficked. And fortunately, we have not seen courts consistently follow that mandatory restitution provision. And so, we are talking about the report, the levels of restitution that we’re seeing. And the good news is that it is going up. And my hope is that as the report continues to be used by more and more people, we will see that number continue to go up. But the number is still, unfortunately, quite low. So, in this past year, we saw that human trafficking defendants were ordered to pay mandatory restitution in about 40 percent of cases, which is about what it was in twenty eighteen, which is still way too low. But it is almost double what it was in 2016, which was about 25 percent, a little less than double what it was. So, we’re seeing the right kind of trend line, but we still have a long way to go. And so, we’d like to see courts improve in ordering mandatory restitution for survivors because that is such a critical component of both the sentence for the defendant as well as for the future services in care and opportunities for survivors.

Sandie [00:17:03] So, can we dig just a little deeper on that and look at the contrast between restitution for labor trafficking victims and sex trafficking victims that your report shows?

Victor [00:17:15] Yes. So, that is an interesting difference. So, we see that restitution and labor trafficking cases in 2019 were very high, it was 100% of defendants in labor trafficking cases were ordered to pay restitution and it was quite a bit lower in sex trafficking cases. And one caveat there is that there is just way, way fewer labor trafficking cases than sex trafficking cases. So, it’s a much smaller pool of cases that we’re pulling from. And, you know, people can make different arguments about why that is and what explains the disparities and restitution for in labor cases versus sex trafficking cases. I can imagine some theories that people would advance, you know, some might say that in labor trafficking cases, it’s easier to calculate lost profits because you’re talking about a business enterprise that is typically a legitimate business. There’s nothing illegitimate about running a restaurant or running a hotel or running an agricultural enterprise. And so, there are pretty standard ways to calculate lost profits. And there are ways to do that in commercial sex cases, but it can be harder and maybe less easily thought of by prosecutors. The other thing that we have heard anecdotally is that some perceive that sex trafficking defendants are less likely to be solvent and are therefore they may feel like it’s not worth it to purchase restitution. And we really would push against that and say, no, this is actually mandatory restitution, regardless of the solvency of the defendant. And we’d like to see those numbers go up. But those are maybe a couple of theories or anecdotes that we heard around the disparities in restitution.

Sandie [00:18:59] Does it make a difference if we’re talking about criminal versus civil cases?

Victor [00:19:04] Well, restitution and we’re talking about military restitution. That’s really specific to criminal cases because that is a component of the criminal sentence in the criminal case. So, when I was speaking about the restitution and labor cases were sexual cases, I’m thinking about the criminal restitution required as part of the sentence of a convicted trafficking defendant.

Sandie [00:19:26] So, in civil cases and there is a restitution element at the federal level, just like there is at our state level. Is that right?

Victor [00:19:36] Well, in civil cases, you’re filing for damages, as a kind of recovery I guess, that happens on the civil side. And that would be a distinct process from the restitution in the criminal case.

Sandie [00:19:51] OK. In some conversations with survivors, they’ve talked about how important it is to have some kind of compensation for being a victim of the crime. And seeing someone go to prison is not nearly as satisfying as having a start in life based on a considerable sum of investment in that person’s future.

Victor [00:20:19] For sure, that makes a lot of sense and really both are important. You know, we want to, on the one hand, hold the traffickers accountable for their crimes that they commit and to deter other traffickers or would-be traffickers from engaging in that crime, and restitution as a component of that deterrence. But there’s also a very important element of restitution to help the survivors be put in a better position financially to move forward and recover from what is a very challenging, traumatic experience that they’re trying to recover from.

Sandie [00:20:51] So, kind of switching topics here. I was really struck by the trend that over half of the victims are children. And, of course, the preponderance of cases was sex trafficking. So, can you give us some insight into why that is? Because I get really frustrated with the media narrative that you see most often of kind of a lost kitten, that children are increasingly vulnerable and they are being trafficked at rates that aren’t comparable with adults, but children turn into adults. So, why do I see this data that drives that narrative actually in black and white right in front of me?

Victor [00:21:41] Well, we want to be really careful about that, because what we’re really looking at here in the human trafficking report is federal human trafficking cases. So, these are cases that have been investigated and gone all the way to charge. We can’t really use it as a prevalence estimate. It doesn’t include state cases and it fails to include lots of other traffickings that’s happening. There may be systemic reasons why we tend to find more child cases that go to charge than adult cases without that indicating that there are more child victims than adult victims. So, we want to be really careful that we don’t suggest that this is a reflection of the prevalence of the crime. And so, we try to make that clear kind of in the reports. I think there probably are some reasons we have anecdotally heard about districts that really focused almost exclusively on child sex cases. And I think, you know, reasons for that, that we don’t want to see, but I think prosecutors may be concerned about additional evidentiary challenges in adult sex trafficking cases because, with a child sex trafficking case, you don’t have to prove force, fraud, or coercion. It’s enough to prove that the person who is trafficked is underage. And so, I feel like those cases are easier to do. And if we worried about less empathy for adult sex trafficking victims than child sex trafficking victims. Sometimes in child cases, you may have more companion charges that are easy to prove, like child pornography charges or others that can make it easier for prosecutors to be confident that they’re going to get a conviction on some of their charges. And some of those additional charges could make it easier to leverage a plea because, for instance, child pornography has very high sentencing requirements. And so, if you’ve got a child pornography charge hanging over you as a defendant, you may be more likely to plea. So, there are some drivers that we can imagine that might make prosecutors more inclined to prioritize child sex cases. And that’s why we may potentially see more child sex cases actually coming through as we look at what cases actually get charged than adult cases without that meaning that there are more child victims. So, I think what you’re making is a really excellent point, which is this is not a reflection of the prevalence of victims. It’s really a reflection of which cases are actually charged by federal prosecutors and move through the criminal justice process on the federal side.

Sandie [00:24:07] That is very helpful. And if any of my students listen to this podcast, that question will be on the exam. So, I want to talk just a little bit about how pleased I was to see the depth of exploration in the data on vulnerabilities. One of the things that we hear all the time about kids, and I get emails almost every day asking for money for children who have been victimized in this way. And there is a sense that all of these kids came out of our broken foster system. But on page 21, having a history of being in the foster care system was way down on the list. It was towards the bottom. And I think that is really helpful for us to look at those vulnerabilities, to understand that we can use this report also for developing stronger prevention and community education models so that we aren’t just following the same path we’ve been doing for the last decade. I really appreciated that and just wanted to tell you guys how much that helped me.

Victor [00:25:22] I’m so glad to hear that. We had a few new features in this year’s report, one of which was really actually starting to track data around victim vulnerability. We were hoping that that would be a really helpful and useful new piece of data for our readers to track. So, I’m encouraged that that was really useful and helpful for you. And we would value you and your listeners, as you think about other categories of data that would be helpful, to reach out because we want to make this report more and more useful over the years. And many of the new innovations in this year’s report are a reflection of hearing from other readers about what would be most helpful. And so that’s one key piece that I’m really glad you found to be a useful new category for you.

Sandie [00:26:10] Thank you. I know we’re almost out of time and I don’t want to leave this discussion without talking about hotels. Your focus on hotels in criminal cases and in civil cases. Can you tell me which direction you think we’re going to have the most value? Because it means that hotels will begin to have more concern about economic disincentives as well. So, what’s your take on those trends?

Victor [00:26:44] I think in some ways the jury is literally still out. You know, a lot of the new civil cases around hotels are still being processed, but we are seeing a rise in that. It’s been interesting to see that some of the handful of entity cases that are charged on the criminal side you’re charging an entity as a person, individual or hotel cases. And as we track sort of in sex trafficking case in the US, where are we seeing the commercial sex acts take place most often, and by far the highest category is in hotels. So, that is where we’re seeing the buyers and sex trafficking victims actually engaging in commercial sex. So, it really is an important place for us to improve enforcement and to create disincentives for hotels to engage in. So, we want to create the economic incentive that this is a costly thing to have at your hotels and that you really want to avoid. And I think that’s going to happen. I don’t think it’ll take a huge number of hotel cases before you start to go, hey, there’s a lot more risk for us if we tolerate this and benefit from it than if we were to actually take active steps to stop it. And so, I’m encouraged to see this rise in cases happening. And I do know that there are several hotel chains who’ve been taking a lead and trying to increase their own staff’s ability to recognize trafficking, to refer it. Marriott has done some good work in the anti-trafficking space and others. And we should note that many of the hotels, we actually do track which hotels, are most frequently cited in public sources. And many of the hotels, in fact, the majority are small chains or, kind of, non-chain hotels. They’re not the bigger actors that we’re more familiar with among the bigger actors, Motel6 appeared very often. Super8 Motel, Days Inn, and Red Roof were hotel chains that we would love to see take active steps to prevent this from happening inside their establishments. And my hope is that these cases will help create additional incentives for them to do just that.

Sandie [00:28:49] I totally agree. Here in California, our L.A. city attorney’s office helped with developing civil abatement laws to address human trafficking in this respect. And we just want to make it, so it is not profitable to continue to do this. There are so many more questions that I’d love to talk to you about, but our time is out. But I want to give you one last comment and then we’ll turn it back to Dave.

Victor [00:29:19] We’ll thank you, Sandie. I’m so grateful to get to be with you guys again and to talk about The Federal Human Trafficking Report. I just want to acknowledge that Kyleigh Feehs, Alyssa Currier, and Lindsey Roberson were three of the key attorneys who helped make all this possible. I’m sharing some of these trends, but that’s based on a tremendous amount of work that they helped lead. And a small army of attorneys that also managed law students. So, I just want to thank them for their work in making this possible. And I do think that this is one area that as this young movement, this young anti-trafficking movement continues to mature and grow will become increasingly important to have really clear data that is rigorous and clear, that becomes sort of the knowledge base that we use to make wise policy and legal decisions. So, I’m encouraged to see that folks like you who have such a broad listenership, even all over the world, are featuring the importance of having data-driven insights into what’s happening in trafficking. So, I just want to thank you for using your platform and drawing listeners into this, I think a very key component of maturing as a movement. So, thank you for that.

Sandie [00:30:32] Thank you, Victor. Back to you, Dave.

Dave [00:30:35] Thank you both. It’s just really incredible to hear all of the work that Victor and your team have done. Just so impressive. Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us. We are going to capture so many of the links that have been mentioned here in the episode notes. So, please look those up. In addition, if maybe you’re just learning about this work for the first time or maybe you just listened for an episode or two, we’d invite you to also take the first step. Hop online and download a copy of Sandie’s book, The Five Things You Must Know, A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’s absolutely free, and it’ll teach you the five critical things that Sandie and her work with the Global Center for Women and Justice have really advised you to do before you join the fight against human trafficking. You can get access to that by going over to Endinghumantrafficking.org. And if today’s conversation has raised a question for you, feedback@Endinghumantrafficking.org is the best place to go. That will send over an email to come right over to us. Or just find all the past episodes on the Web site, endinghumantrafficking.org. And we will see you back in two weeks. Thanks, everybody. Take care.


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