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July 12, 2016

JVTA One Year After Enactment

By Rachel Buchan

On June 28th the Senate judiciary committee convened a hearing to evaluate the Justice Department’s (DOJ) efficacy in implementing the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA). Enacted just over a year ago, this anti-trafficking legislation promised critical provisions to expand the capacity of the U.S. government to combat modern day slavery.

Four key provisions of the bill included improving victim restitution, refining a victim-centered approach in criminal procedures, codifying training for law enforcement personnel on identifying and investigating human trafficking, and increasing reporting by law enforcement across the United States.

Victim restitution. Restitution for victims of human trafficking is not a new mandate, but it has been tenuously enforced historically. In order to address this shortcoming, legislation needs to enhance engagement with prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement. Under the JVTA, the DOJ observed an increase in training and coordination among investigating agencies, resources to pursue assets, and compensation of victims by the transfer of forfeited assets.

Victim services. The most humane and effective method of prosecuting traffickers is a victim-centered approach, one that prioritizes the victim’s needs and wishes above other considerations. The JVTA created a Domestic Trafficking Victims Fund to provide victims increased access to services and support for anti-trafficking efforts. One of its sources of money comes from charges imposed on criminal defendants, and as of May 2016 over $100,000 has been collected. In September 2015 the Department of Justice allocated $44 million in grant funds, $8 million of which was awarded to comprehensive victim services and $6 million to specialized services including LGBT, runaway and homeless youth, and foreign born victims.  

Law enforcement training. Law enforcement needs robust training in order to fully understand human trafficking cases, victim needs, and applicable law under evolving legislation. After the enactment of the JVTA, written guidance was issued to federal prosecutors detailing the changes to criminal laws, and training was provided to the Assistant U.S. Attorneys, financial institutions, and prosecutors and agents working directly on human trafficking cases.

Law enforcement reporting. Though the federal government collects crime data at the state and local levels, the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) revealed that not all jurisdictions participate, nor is there a formal mechanism in place to track prosecutions. As mandated by the JVTA, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) is working to expand data resources for improved reporting at the state level. Their first report is expected at the end of 2016 with remaining data gaps highlighted.

Under these provisions of the JVTA, the government has made progress in its efforts to combat human trafficking. But labor trafficking cases in particular need more attention.

According to the Urban Institute, 83 percent of law enforcement’s cases were sex trafficking. Meanwhile victim service providers identified 64 percent of their clients as survivors of labor trafficking and 10 percent as survivors of both sex and labor trafficking. Furthermore, the 2016 TIP Report showed that only six of 297 DOJ initiated trafficking convictions were forced labor cases, about 2 percent of its total cases, down from 15 percent the year before. Current measures under the JVTA should be expanded to appropriately prioritize labor trafficking.