Human trafficking in the form of sexual slavery is a real problem in our country, one that the federal government is fighting hard to dismantle. The ability of traffickers to sell their victims for sex on the internet has caused this problem to proliferate.
In response, federal investigative and prosecutorial efforts have increased dramatically in recent years. For example, in 2009, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania initiated a sex-trafficking working group with the FBI and the Philadelphia Police Department, leading to an exponential increase in the number of federal investigations in our district. As a result, over the past decade, we have federally prosecuted dozens of trafficking ventures (and individual traffickers) in the Philadelphia area.
Federal judges have imposed sentences typically in the range of 30 years to life imprisonment, with no possibility of parole in the federal system. For example, Kevino Graham was sentenced to 100 years for running a brothel in Philadelphia and subjecting three young women to sadistic sexual violence.
Last year we joined a task force that includes the Philadelphia Police Department, the Salvation Army, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which is working to identify and prosecute targets, provide essential services to victims and educate both law enforcement and the public. In addition, my office's human trafficking coordinator, Michelle Morgan, has engaged the community, high school students, law enforcement officers, judges, and nonprofit organizations in countless forums across the district, providing ongoing education and awareness. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, too, has joined the fight, posting a human trafficking hotline in many stations, trains and subway cars. Change is afoot.
The avoidable tragedy in the current landscape is the common misperception of what the crime actually is. Most people engaging in prostitution in our district are doing it against their will, for another person's exclusive profit. Most people engaging in prostitution in our district are American citizens of color, a vast portion of whom are juvenile females, recruited in their neighborhoods, in public transit stations, outside their public schools, or on social media, by "Romeo pimps" posing as would-be boyfriends.
Most people engaging in prostitution in our district were recruited drug-free, and then introduced to serious drugs by their traffickers as a means of coercion. The Philadelphia District Attorney's new policy of normalizing prostitution, most significantly by not adequately penalizing or even charging the buyers, sends the wrong message to our community – that local prosecutors do not view trafficking as serious enough to do everything possible to stop it (or, to put it more bluntly, do not view it as a problem at all).
Until we stop pretending that prostitution is engaged in only by consenting adults as some sort of lifestyle choice, we will be crippling ourselves in our ability to combat this problem. And more young victims will continue to suffer.
– William M. McSwain is the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. He wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer.