Why a Lack of Reliable Data Hinders Human Trafficking Prevention Programs – And What State Governments Can Do About It

Why a Lack of Reliable Data Hinders Human Trafficking Prevention Programs – And What State Governments Can Do About It

by Sam Zohab, Project Analyst 

While state governments have increased their efforts to combat human trafficking, one enduring obstacle in developing effective counter-trafficking responses and measuring their impact is the lack of accurate, timely data.

Collecting reliable data related to human trafficking is challenging for several reasons:

  • A lack of self-reporting

    Victims of human trafficking are often too frightened and indoctrinated to report their trafficker.

  • Misclassification

    Unfortunately, victims of human trafficking are often forced into sex work by their traffickers and then wrongly labeled as prostitutes by law enforcement. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, in 2020 there were 12,895 arrests for prostitution-related offenses and only 340 for sex trafficking offenses.

  • Data Silos

    Aside from law enforcement, a variety of public and private organizations interact with trafficking victims – hospitals, local support programs, public school systems, etc. While these entities may have valuable, up-to-date data, most states lack the processes and technology necessary to share this data across organizations.

This lack of data can lead to a lack of understanding and public awareness about human trafficking. Many people will assume there is no human trafficking in their communities and fail to spot victims, when in reality no single community is immune from the problem. Furthermore, without accurate data, governments can’t create data-driven counter-trafficking solutions nor measure their impact.

Like all states, Virginia seeks to eliminate trafficking and its damaging impact on both individuals and society. To that end, the Commonwealth’s Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) has launched an innovative digital platform, Virginia Analysis System for Trafficking (VAST). Created in collaboration with Qlarion, a GCOM company, VAST is delivering new insights and providing new weapons against human trafficking in Virginia.

Bridging the Gap with Data Sharing

Sharing data across public and private organizations and combining multiple data sources is critical to the fight against trafficking. Government agencies can overcome the data gaps caused by under-reporting by capturing and correlating information that can signal trafficking risks.

For example, by combining criminal record data, demographic data, and data from missing children’s reports, we can identify “hot spots” where a spike in drug/theft arrests or prostitution-related crimes could indicate a rise in trafficking. This information can also be used to spot and study misclassifications, which can then improve training programs that teach law enforcement how to better identify victims.

Data sharing and analysis can also improve resource allocation and program planning. For example, an analysis of arrest records and demographic data may reveal that one community needs to invest in support for victims who speak a specific language. Analysis could also reveal that trafficking and missing children reports historically increase during a particular event (e.g., an annual concert series), prompting local officials to ramp up public education programs about trafficking ahead of the event and increase law enforcement staffing during the event.

Data can also help policymakers evaluate the long-term effects of trafficking on survivors and assess the need for potential legislative changes. When survivors do break free of trafficking, many have a criminal record. According to the Survivor Reentry Project Survey from Freedom Network USA, 60% of survivors are arrested for crimes other than prostitution and 40% reported being arrested nine times or more. A criminal record can make it very challenging for victims to find housing and employment. By tracking and analyzing the victim’s circumstances over time, legislators could better evaluate the need for record expungement or re-entry programs.