A research team from UNM’s College of Nursing recently developed new statistical metrics that produced clear evidence sex trafficking has been on the rise in the U.S.

Data show that in the period before the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), charges filed in federal sex-trafficking-related cases were increasing at a rate of more than 40 percent per year. Results also show that this trend changed following the passage of the TVPA in 2000. The rate of charges filed continued to increase, but only at about 15 percent per year.

Tracking the murky world of sex trafficking in the U.S. has been challenging, with unclear outcomes due to disparate and unconnected local, state, federal and international reporting criteria, according to Shana Judge, PhD, the study's principal investigator and an assistant professor with the UNM College of Nursing. 

“In this study, we addressed the need for empirical research on human trafficking by compiling unique data related to criminal charges filed in federal judicial districts, and using these data to examine trends in sex-trafficking-related cases,” she says. “In the past, U.S. sex-trafficking data were often compiled through unreliable sources – from the number of sex-trafficking prosecutions worldwide to state-level crime statistics. None of these resources is comprehensive or integrated.”

Judge began her research as a doctoral student in North Carolina wanting to measure the impact of policy responses to sex trafficking – specifically, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Her initial research revealed a pervasive skepticism regarding the integrity of data being used to measure trafficking activity, so she sought a different source – the Federal Justice Statistics Program, which tracks the prosecution of federal crimes, including sex-trafficking-related crimes.

Judge and her colleague Blake Boursaw, a mathematician and applied statistician instructor at the UNM College of Nursing, performed extensive modeling and calculations on reconfigured data from the Federal Justice Statistics Program. They found that the proportion of all charges filed by federal prosecutors that involved sex trafficking and related cases increased significantly between 1994 and 2007.

“The rate of increase, however, slowed following the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, suggesting that the TVPA might have helped to mitigate increases in new cases,” Judge says.

The study also revealed factors affecting national sex-trafficking data, like how sex trafficking is prosecuted. “Focusing on federal charges gave us the advantage of examining a single criminal justice system in a nationwide, longitudinal analysis,” Judge adds. “We found evidence suggesting that in cases with elements of both immigration and sex-trafficking crimes, federal prosecutors might dispose of these cases using immigration charges only, most likely because securing a conviction in an immigration case is easier and involves fewer resources.”