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Victims and perpetrators are sometimes hard to distinguish

Not long ago, most Americans would have been shocked and puzzled to hear that the trafficking of human victims still existed anywhere, much less in the United States and even in communities near them.

Times have changed quickly. Only in 2003 did Washington State become the first state in America to criminalize human trafficking. Today, every state has done the same and public awareness has grown enormously.

In Dallas not long ago, federal attorneys and bar association presidents examined the crime of human trafficking. They discussed how victims of trafficking often make contact with police for the first time when they’re arrested as criminal suspects, not as victims. Police sweeps to arrest crime rings often wind up being, in part, round-ups of victims.

The job of more deeply understanding how the suspect actually related to the crime sometimes falls to the defense attorney whose job, after all, is to help the defendant obtain justice in the court system. This way, defense attorneys serve the irreplaceable function of identifying victims of trafficking.

A former New York Bar Association president urged increased training for police, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys so that victims can be more often be treated as such and thus protected instead of prosecuted. The NYBA president also noted the recently enacted New York law that enables trafficking victims to clear their records of convictions stemming from having been trafficked.

A recent article by a now-public defender warns, among other things, that trafficking victims are groomed to hide from the truth, distrust the police, lie about the crimes they’ve been made to commit, and listen to no one but the trafficker. Many of the tell-tale signs of victimization can resemble signs of criminal activity, such as false or absent identification, no apparent financial records or bank accounts, and evasive behavior.

Along with increased public awareness and anger about the crime of human trafficking, the public will presumably become increasingly sophisticated about the complexity of the crimes and the kinds of interventions the police, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys must make to ensure justice.

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