Over the last week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation rescued 168 children from the sex trade and arrested 281 pimps with state and federal charges as part of a yearly crackdown on sex trafficking.
The annual week-long campaign, known as Operation Cross Country, has rescued nearly 3,600 children since its founding. This year, which marks the 8th mission, spanned 106 cities and involved 54 FBI divisions.
“These are not children living in some faraway place, far from everyday life,” FBI Director James Comey stated when the news was released (accompanied by a powerful video of one sex trafficking survivor’s story). “These are our children. On our streets. Our truck stops. Our motels. These are America’s children.”
Operation Cross Country has led to 1,450 convictions and 14 life prison terms over the past eight years and works closely with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to bust child-prostitution rings on the federal level.
According to the Department of Justice, 300,000 children may become victims of sex trafficking each year, and the average age of entry into child prostitution is 13 to 14 years old. Pimps, who typically have 4 to 6 girls each, can make $150,000 to $200,000 per child each year. Human trafficking generates $9.5 billion each year in the United States, and the industry has been on the rise since Operation Cross Country was founded.
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center has seen a 259 percent increase in calls reporting human trafficking since 2008 and recorded almost 9,300 potential cases in the five years following the start of the FBI’s crackdown.
Advocacy groups indicate that one major issue with tackling the rising toll of human trafficking is that state laws on punishment and prevention of sex trafficking vary greatly. In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which is reauthorized every two years. Unfortunately, it only applies to a relatively small number of federal cases. That leaves states in charge of implementing their own legislation to tackle the problem at a local level, where prosecutors and investigators often lack training and other resources necessary to pursue sex trafficking cases.
The U.S. Department of State says human trafficking cases are “the most labor and time-intensive matters undertaken by the Department of Justice.” Yet local law enforcement anti-trafficking programs simply don’t have the funding. A study released in 2012 by the National Institute of Justice concluded, “A common frustration among the law enforcement officers that we interviewed was that, since the recession, funding has been tight throughout their entire department, and finding the resources to carry out complex anti-trafficking work has become less available in the department.”
That means many cases go without investigation or prosecution: just 7 percent of human-trafficking cases at the state level lead to a formal charge.
Even if local prosecutors go forward with a case, state laws can be much less effective at combating sex trafficking and protecting victims. Only 12 states in the nation have “safe harbor” laws, which recognize children who have been sexually exploited as victims in need of services and grant them immunity from prosecution. “We should be treating victims like victims and not like criminals. It’s a reminder that we have so far to go,” said Bradley Myles, the CEO of the Polaris Project, in an interview with the Huffington Post.
According to the Department of Justice, the top 20 cities for human trafficking are spread over 15 states, with the most trafficking in Houston, El Paso, and Los Angeles. The Polaris Project, an organization in the global fight against human trafficking, releases a yearly ranking of state policies to combat human trafficking, and found that although most of the 15 have moderate to good protections in place, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. are ranked much lower. (The state with the worst sex trafficking laws, though, was South Dakota by far.)
Cindy McCain, who is spearheading Arizona’s crackdown on sex trafficking leading up to next year’s Super Bowl, calls for increased penalties for pimps, changes to the law to designate girls as victims instead of prostitutes, and more resources devoted to public awareness campaigns. The McCain Institute, alongside the Polaris Project, is recommending an expansion of FBI counter-trafficking efforts in mountainous regions like Colorado and South Dakota, who have some of the least comprehensive policies in place.
Abigail Bessler and Shannon Greenwood are interns at ThinkProgress.