Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill spoke Friday at the Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Summit, where he touted the state’s increased focus on the issue.
Hill’s appearance was just weeks after the announcement of the expansion of his office’s Human Trafficking Investigations Unit during national Human Trafficking Awareness Month in January.
Human trafficking — whether labor trafficking or sex trafficking — is one of the largest and fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the world, just behind the drug trade. Both forms of human trafficking recruit from marginalized groups: labor trafficking from immigrant populations and sex trafficking from women and children. The typical age of children pulled into commercial sex is as young as 12 to 14, according to Friday statement from Hill’s office.
Hill was part of a panel discussion moderated by NBC News’ Pete Williams, which also included Hillary Axam, of the Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit; Erin Nealy Cox, U.S. Attorney Northern District of Texas; and Staca Shehan, Case Analysis Division executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
During the summit, Hill said his office had received more than 20 inquiries since his office’s expansion was announced. Hill said it was important for authorities to be proactive instead of reactive to address the problem.
“We cannot have a typical law enforcement response,” he said. “This is organized crime, and it requires intelligence gathering.”
Hill said Indiana’s lack of a Safe Harbor Law which would automatically recognize those under 18 as victims of sex trafficking meant prosecutors had discretion in such prosecutions.
“It’s a tricky situation,” he said. “Not everyone who is engaged in … prostitution is there willingly.”
“The victims oftentimes don’t recognize that they’re victims,” he said. “They see themselves doing what they need to do and while we want to see them and treat them as victims … oftentimes (the) only ability to get into their mindset is through the arrest.”
Federally, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protections Act of 2000 declared immigrants who are undocumented have certain protections. However, Axam said the brainwashing and fear of prosecution is exactly the vulnerability traffickers exploit.
“More often I have had victims scream at me, ‘You ruined everything,’ than I’ve had them say, ‘Thank you for pulling me out of this situation,’” she said. “They go for the folks that are already struggling.”
Shehan said Minnesota was a model state for navigators working with victims, especially regarding Minneapolis’ preparation for Super Bowl LII. Greg Booker, interim U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, said there had been a marked uptick in advertising for sex workers in the lead-up to the Super Bowl.
“Sex trafficking is a market-driven enterprise,” he said.
Indianapolis similarly braced for such an uptick in 2012 when it hosted Super Bowl XLVI.
Booker said efforts like the Don’t Buy It Project, which targets potential patrons, and the I Am Priceless campaign, which is geared toward possible victims, aided their response.
“These crimes against human rights happen 365 days a year,” he said. “Awareness and enforcement efforts must be nurtured, must be supported, and most importantly must be sustained long after the big game is over.”