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Pa. human trafficking offenses went down from 2021 to 2022 — but that’s not the whole picture

A city employee sets up a display board with a poster reading "Human trafficking: facts and help for victims."
Jae C. Hong
FILE - In this Sept. 24, 2014, file photo, a city employee sets up a display board in preparation for a news conference to announce the results of a task force's eight-month effort to target sex traffickers in the Long Beach, Calif.

Charges filed against people suspected of human trafficking in Pennsylvania dropped by nearly 41% from 2021 to 2022.

But that does not necessarily mean there is less human trafficking happening, or that fewer women, children and men in the state are being exploited for commercial purposes.

This drop reflects that fewer offenses were filed against human trafficking suspects during that time. At the same time, the number of cases went down, but not as much, according to a report from Villanova University’s Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation.

However, experts familiar with new data from the state court system say the number of offenses charged do not always correlate to the amount of cases, because multiple charges can be filed for a single case, against one person. Moreover, human trafficking investigations are complex and take a long time to prosecute, so there is always more bubbling beneath the surface.

An infographic depicting data about human trafficking in Pennsylvania.

It’s important to look at the number of cases and offenses side by side over a long period of time, according to Jamie Pizzi, an attorney and independent consultant for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. The report from CSE Institute, which is based on AOPC data, shows court cases involving human trafficking decreased overall since 2019, when 35 cases were recorded by Pennsylvania courts. In 2020, cases dropped to 25 and then spiked again in 2021, partly because of court backlogs caused by the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

But since then, they began to trend down again.

Pizzi said it is important to note that — while the case numbers have stayed the same or have gone down — trafficking charges have been trending upwards since 2019, despite the drop between 2021 and 2022. This just means more offenses are being charged per case, Pizzi said.

“In my opinion, it looks like better evidence and better investigation being done in these cases,” Pizzi said. ”If you’re able to charge a litany of offenses under the human trafficking law and a single case that just means you have more evidence and more instances to prove in a court of law. So you’re going to be more likely to get a more substantial conviction that way.”

According to AOPC, 286 human trafficking cases were filed — and a total of 809 offenses were charged statewide — over the past five years. The most common type of offense category was trafficking individuals, which includes “recruiting, enticing and soliciting” people for human trafficking enterprises. The second most common offense charged was involuntary servitude.

According to AOPC’s data, Berks County had the largest concentration of offenses filed, accounting for 12% of the state’s total in the past five years. Dauphin County accounted for 10% of offenses filed.

Human trafficking cases can take a long time to prosecute because of precautions law enforcement and prosecutors have to take to protect survivors, said Kelly Callihan, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association.

There are also times when investigations might be initially focused on a person’s alleged prostitution crimes without realizing that person is being exploited by a trafficker, Callihan said.

“The women who are trafficked, or men, often stay in the shadows for a long period of time. In other words, they’re very hesitant if police respond to an incident to alert authorities to what is happening to them,” Callihan said.

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A lot of times people being exploited depend on the trafficker for basic necessities such as food and shelter, and they do not see a way out of the situation that they are in, so they might become protective of their trafficker.

People engaging in commercial sex are also more likely to get picked up by law enforcement, Pizzi said, because they are the ones outside taking the risks to do the trafficker’s bidding.

“They get arrested, charged, often plead out and then the trafficker pays for the lawyer to take care of it, pays their bond,” Pizzi said. “And that’s just used as a form of debt coercion against the victim in the future.”

Pennsylvania adopted its first comprehensive human trafficking law in 2015. Since then human trafficking-related convictions have gone up 38%, according to the CSE annual report. Because it is a newer crime, the state’s association of district attorneys conducts training with police officers and prosecutors on how to identify trafficking victims.

“It’s trying to change the mindset and understanding of police,” Callihan said. “You have to do a deeper dive, because you need to know how to identify whether this is part of an organization and the person is a victim of trafficking, rather than willingly prostituting themselves. ”

There have been some recent legislative efforts to create more victim-centered anti-trafficking laws. Sen. Katie Muth (D-Montgomery County) introduced a bill to protect human trafficking survivors during the prosecution process, but it never made it out of the Senate.

On Jan. 11, the Attorney General’s Office announced the creation of the state’s first human trafficking section to increase collaboration between local, state and federal agencies in charge of investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases.

Read more from our partners, WITF.