Human Trafficking and Slavery

Offenders may entice adult victims into an original agreement to work. They later apply threats or force and change the terms or conditions of the agreement. Federal prosecutors can bring charges against the offender or those who profit from the offense. 

Slavery and human trafficking are activities many people would prefer to believe happened a long time ago. The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, enacted in 1865, made slavery illegal. Yet, criminals still hold people against their will and force them into labor.

Modern human trafficking crimes most often involve sex work and other types of physical labor. Anyone can fall victim to these offenses. But, the majority of victims are women and girls, while the majority of offenders are men. Vulnerable populations, such as minors, undocumented immigrants, and members of minority groups, appear in disproportionate numbers in cases of human trafficking.

Read on to learn more about human trafficking and slavery. This article will highlight federal and state laws, criminal penalties, and other efforts related to these crimes.

Human Trafficking and Slavery: Federal Crimes

Human trafficking and slavery today can take many forms. Human trafficking cases often include:

  • Sex trafficking and sexual exploitation of adults and children
  • Domestic servitude
  • Forced labor on farms, in factories, or hotels
  • Debt bondage

Federal law prohibits forced labor. This federal crime (18 U.S.C. Section 1589) happens when someone makes another provide work or services for them by any of the following means:

  • Force, threats of force, physical restraint, or threats of physical restraint
  • Serious harm or threats of serious harm to the victim or another person
  • Abuse, or threatened abuse of law or legal process
  • A scheme or plan to make a victim believe that if they do not submit, the victim or another person will suffer serious harm or physical restraint

Criminal penalties can include up to 20 years in prison and a fine. If a death results, the court can sentence the offender to any period of years up to life in prison.

A separate federal law prohibits trafficking in persons for peonage, involuntary servitude, slavery, or forced labor. This federal crime (18 U.S.C. Section 1590) makes it illegal to "knowingly recruit, harbor, transport, provide, or obtain by any means any person for labor or services" in violation of these laws. Peonage is forcing someone to pay off a debt through work or services. Punishment can include any term of years up to life in prison. Those who obstruct or attempt to obstruct enforcement of this law face the same penalties as the principal offender.

Some of the most severe forms of human trafficking involve sex trafficking of minors (anyone under 18 years of age). Offenders here may set up brothels. They recruit, entice, or coerce children they find online or in otherwise unsupervised settings. Runaways and homeless youth have unique vulnerabilities that may lead them to criminal activity. Often, these crimes engage minors in commercial sex acts or child pornography.

Conviction for the crime of sex trafficking of children means years in prison up to a life sentence. If the minor is under age 14 or the offender used force, threats, fraud, or coercion, the minimum sentence will be 15 years in prison. If the minor is 14 to 17, the minimum sentence will be 10 years in prison. There are also separate federal and state crimes related to the sexual exploitation of children and the possession or distribution of child sexual abuse material.

Prosecution of federal human trafficking cases falls under the authority of the Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ also coordinates the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking and human trafficking task forces and working groups. These efforts provide support to state and local entities that also work to end human trafficking.

Congress passed the first-ever comprehensive legislation relating to trafficking victims in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. It led to human trafficking prosecutions in various labor environments. This includes economic sectors like tourism, hospitality, and other domestic labor industries. This area of law continues to expand and develop. For example, Congress added civil damages for victims to the TVPA in 2003. It then expanded the law to provide extraterritorial jurisdiction in 2008. Congress amended and reauthorized the TVPA as recently as 2018.

In 2014, Congress passed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act. It aimed to reduce sex trafficking among youth in the foster care system. The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 strengthens services available for victims of human trafficking. It established criminal liability for buyers of commercial sex from victims of trafficking. It also set up a survivor-led U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.

Human Trafficking and Slavery: Associated Criminal Acts

Besides outlawing human trafficking and slavery, federal law also prohibits and punishes other specific acts associated with human trafficking. These include:

  • Holding a person in a state of compulsory service or involuntary servitude (known as "peonage").
  • Luring or enticing a person to go onboard a vessel or any other place with the intention that they are made or held as an enslaved person.
  • Kidnapping or carrying away a person with the intent to hold or sell them into slavery.
  • Transporting a person with the knowledge or intent that the person be held or sold as an enslaved person.
  • Selling a person into involuntary servitude.
  • Destruction, concealment, removal, or confiscation of a person's passport or other documents with the intent to traffic them or for the purpose of restricting or preventing their travel.
  • Profiting from peonage, slavery, or trafficking in persons. See 18 U.S.C. Section 1593A.
  • Destruction, concealment, removal, or confiscation of a person's passport or other immigration documents to commit fraud in foreign labor contracting or to illegally bring or harbor an alien into the U.S.

Human Trafficking and Slavery: Penalties

The penalties for human trafficking are severe. A conviction for holding a person in peonage carries fines and a maximum prison term of 20 years in federal prison. If a death results from a violation or the violation includes kidnapping, sexual abuse, or other aggravating factors, the punishment can be life imprisonment.

Sex trafficking of children by fraud, force, or coercion has enhanced penalties. Prison sentences for these offenses are a potential life sentence. They start at 10 or 15 years in prison (depending on the details of the crime).

Federal law also prohibits and punishes attempts and conspiracies relating to human trafficking. The government can take any property used violating the law and any proceeds from the act. The law includes clauses for the mandatory payment of restitution to the victim for the total amount of their losses, as determined by the court.

Human Trafficking and Slavery: State Law Examples

States have also created crimes related to human trafficking in recent years. California's law makes it a crime to "deprive or violate the personal liberty of another with the intent to obtain forced labor or services." Upon conviction, this felony offense results in a sentence of five, eight, or 12 years and a fine of up to $500,000. If the intent of the crime is to violate laws relating to the sexual exploitation of a minor, then the potential prison time increases. In these cases, there is a potential for life imprisonment. See California Penal Code Section 236.1.

In Ohio, trafficking in persons is a first-degree felony. The law bans actions to:

  • Recruit, lure, entice, isolate, harbor, transport, provide, get, or maintain (or knowingly attempt any of those things) another person if
  • The offender knows that the other person will be subjected to involuntary servitude or be compelled to engage in sexual activity for hire or other unlawful sexual-oriented performance or
  • The other person is under 18 years of age or has a developmental disability, and either the offender knows that the other person will be subjected to involuntary servitude or the offender's knowing conduct is for (1) for the other person to engage in sexual activity for hire with one or more persons, (2) to engage in a performance for hire that is obscene, sexually oriented or nudity oriented, or (3) to be a model or participant for hire in a performance that is obscene, sexually oriented or nudity oriented.

Violating Ohio's statute can subject the offender to an indefinite prison term that begins with a term of 10 or more years. See Ohio Revised Code Section 2905.32.

Human Trafficking and Slavery: Helpful Resources

Issues related to human trafficking and slavery are complex. Victims of crime are often reluctant to seek help or don't know where to turn. If you are a victim of human trafficking or find yourself trying to help someone who is, you can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. The Hotline operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It can help you report a tip or find local victim services.

Human trafficking investigations often happen with local law enforcement, sometimes with federal help. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigates and pursues federal criminal cases against those engaging in human trafficking. You can contact them through the Hotline or their local field office for help.

More Questions About Human Trafficking or Slavery?

Get Legal Help

Human trafficking laws are harsh. Conviction can lead to prison terms, fines, and restitution. If you believe you are a target of a criminal investigation, consider talking to an experienced defense lawyer about your situation. You can contact a knowledgeable local criminal defense attorney today to better understand the law and any legal defenses to charges of this kind.

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