Sex traffickers frequently ensnare their victims in related criminal activity. In fact, it is an integral part of the sex trafficking victimization process that the victim is committing criminal acts at the behest of their trafficker.
Throughout this country, there have now been decades of work done to decriminalize human trafficking victims. Many states now have specialized human trafficking courts, diversion programs, “safe harbor” laws and vacatur laws that seek to mitigate the harm caused by criminalizing survivors of commercial sexual exploitation.
However, much of that progress only addresses the issue of charging trafficking victims with prostitution crimes. So often, survivors are caught up in serious criminal activity and end up without recourse in the criminal justice system. This situation has arisen frequently in the context of traffickers setting up a “trick-roll” that results in the murder of the sex buyer. Or, like the now famous case of Cyntoia Brown, the sex buyer becomes violent and is killed during the encounter. Most often, the victim is also under the age of consent.
There is an urgent need for law enforcement, and prosecutors in particular, to understand the complex trauma, coercion, and traumatic bonding that occurs in the trafficker/victim relationship. As a result, the victim may appear to be complicit in the criminal activity, whereas in reality, this complicity is part of their victimization. It is a human rights violation for the state to punish a human trafficking victim. In fact, the “non-punishment principle” is integral to a victim’s human rights protection at the international, regional, and domestic level.