At any given time, an estimated 4.5 million individuals around the world are trafficked into the sex trade1 in violation of national and international criminal law and their basic human rights. As a result of the criminal nature of trafficking, the United States, like many other countries, focuses the bulk of its anti-trafficking resources on apprehending and prosecuting traffickers. However, an unfortunate consequence of focusing on maximizing arrests and prosecutions, without adequate allocation of resources to identifying victims and safeguarding their rights, is that victims of human trafficking frequently first come into contact with the criminal justice system when they are arrested. Rather than being recognized as victims, many are then prosecuted and convicted for prostitution and other related crimes.
In order to rectify the grave injustice of criminalizing trafficking victims for crimes that they were compelled to commit, New York and several other states throughout the U.S. have enacted novel legislation to allow victims of human trafficking to essentially erase prostitution and prostitution-related offenses from their criminal records, allowing them a clean slate to rebuild their lives and move beyond the trafficking experience.
These laws are an important first step to remedying these violations, and the passage of similar laws in other states should be encouraged. In addition, as discussed below, the federal and state governments must work to change laws and policies to ensure that victims of trafficking are not arrested.