My New Year's Resolution: Stop the Abuse to Prison Pipeline for Trafficking Survivors

For lawmakers and advocates in Washington, D.C., this New Year marks the beginning of a new Administration, a new Congress, and an opportunity to reflect on a key racial justice, gender equity, and criminal justice reform issue for girls of color. January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and this year we hope to shed light on how sex trafficking too often fuels a cycle of victimization and incarceration among vulnerable girls and young women here in the United States.

Although awareness is growing every day, many still struggle to recognize that human trafficking--including child sex trafficking--doesn't just happen in other countries, but it happens in every community throughout the United States. And not only is it happening here at home, but according to the FBI, over 80 percent of all confirmed sex trafficking cases in the U.S. actually involve American citizens. A shocking 40 percent of those cases involve the sale of American children for sex.

Evidence reveals that women and girls--especially women and girls of color--are overrepresented in the commercial sex trade. In King County, Washington, where African-Americans comprise less than seven percent of the overall population, they comprise a startling 46 percent of all child sex trafficking victims. And not only are girls of color more likely to be trafficked and exploited for sex, but they are also more likely to be criminalized for their exploitation. According to the FBI, African-American children comprise 52 percent of all juvenile prostitution arrests--more than any other racial group. So who are these girls? They are girls like Sarah.

Sarah was just 11 years old when she was first trafficked in California. Walking home one day from school with a friend, Sarah was spotted by a trafficker. Once he spotted them, the exploiter convinced the two girls to get in his car. He then kidnapped them, held them in a nearby apartment, and trafficked them to buyers throughout the Bay Area. Despite being a victim of child sex trafficking, Sarah was arrested for prostitution and kept in juvenile detention for several months.

In any other situation, what happened to Sarah would be considered statutory rape or sexual assault of a minor, leading her abusers to be brought to justice. But because her abuse was paid for, the justice system saw Sarah as the criminal - landing her behind bars and holding her responsible for her own victimization. Tragically, Sarah is not alone.

Sarah's story highlights the dangerous intersection of race, gender, and violence that too often fuels the incarceration of girls who simply need help. Sarah's story represents what we have named the "abuse-to-prison pipeline" - or the pathways of gender-based violence that funnel vulnerable girls into the juvenile justice system as a direct result of suffering trauma.

Motivated by this profound injustice that touches the lives of so many young women and girls at the margin, we at Rights4Girls are dedicated to dismantling this pipeline and ensuring that trafficked and exploited girls are met with services and interventions instead of handcuffs and incarceration.

Over the last several years, we have been focused on putting an end to exploitation of young girls by traffickers and buyers here in the United States. Our team of human rights attorneys has been fighting to end injustices relating to child trafficking - working with survivors, judges, attorneys general, Congress, the White House, and providers to forge real and meaningful change in the way we view, treat, and name survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking in the U.S. It is why in 2015 we launched the No Such Thing campaign to make clear that there is no such thing as a 'child prostitute' and that girls like Sarah are in fact, victims of crime.

As we move into the New Year and into this next Human Trafficking Awareness Month, we ask others to join us in examining why so many girls who are the victims of violence and exploitation are being locked up instead of protected, and to help us build policies that do not re-victimize survivors. We at Rights4Girls are committed to continuing the fight for thoughtful juvenile and criminal justice reform - reform that contemplates women and girls and their unique pathways to confinement. It is what we owe Sarah and all survivors of violence and exploitation.