(The Center Square) — A legislative task force is finalizing recommendations for lawmakers to track better human trafficking in Louisiana, which produces far more victims than arrests.
Members of the Task Force on Human Trafficking Arrests on Wednesday discussed possible ways to understand better the disconnect between the high numbers of human trafficking victims who seek help and the comparatively low numbers of arrests and convictions for human trafficking offenses.
The task force’s work stems from a resolution by Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, approved last session that requires a report to lawmakers with recommendations or proposed legislation to address the issue.
Task force members on Wednesday discussed the need to understand better what happens to children and others identified as human trafficking victims through screening tools used by the Department of Children and Family Services and other groups.
Officials explained a state law that took effect on Jan. 1, 2023 requires all suspected or potential child victims of human trafficking to be referred to the Louisiana State Police, which distributes the cases to a handful of special victims units in the state.
Those SVUs then opt to investigate the case or not or refer the investigations to local law enforcement.
Preliminary numbers expected to be released in a report from the Governor’s Office of Human Trafficking Prevention next week show a total of 202 cases of suspected or confirmed victims of human trafficking in East Baton Rouge Parish last year, with more than 180 involving minors that must be referred to law enforcement and care coordination services, officials said.
East Baton Rouge Judge Tiffany Foxworth-Roberts told the task force that court records show only 33 arrests for human trafficking offenses in the parish in the last decade, with the longest sentence of 40 years in prison for multiple counts of human trafficking.
Many times, human trafficking charges are reduced through a plea bargain to obtain a conviction with prison time rather than run the risk of a jury trial on human trafficking charges that are difficult to prove in court, she said.
“Ultimately, there was very few where there was a conviction obtained for human trafficking,” Foxworth-Roberts said.
The East Baton Rouge example illustrates a statewide trend discussed in a prior task force meeting that showed. At the same time, about 1,000 suspected or confirmed victims of human trafficking received help last year, and state and local police made just 75 trafficking arrests.
The reasons why are many, but mostly revolve around disappearing and uncooperative victims, including many trafficked for sex who do not view themselves as victims or have other alternatives to sustain themselves. Many times, police and prosecutors pursue other charges or refer cases to federal authorities.
Monica Taylor, director of the Office of Human Trafficking Prevention, suggested “we need to reframe the way we think about” the issue to focus more on “victimless prosecution” similar to homicide cases.
“Right now, everything is at the mercy of the victim,” she said. “We’re just allowing the trafficker to continually find new victims.”
“Not all victims need to be put in a courtroom to face their trafficker. Some of them, that is so triggering you are going to send them down a path they may be suicidal,” she said.
Foxworth-Roberts suggested victim outreach through community partners could help victims understand they have other options and may increase cooperation with law enforcement.
“If you show them an alternative, it might open them up,” she said.
Task force members agreed that tracking the results of some suspected trafficking cases from initial reports through the State Police and the court system would be beneficial. However, Taylor noted cases take up to five years to work through the system.
“I don’t think we have complete data yet to know if the ball is being dropped or if there’s a kink in the system,” she said, noting that mandatory reports for minors began just last year. “There’s going to be a significant lag to when we start seeing these prosecutions.”
Task force members also discussed directing additional resources to departments investigating the cases and a standardized process for reporting and gathering data on human trafficking.