Arkansas has identified 1,180 human trafficking victims as part of 383 cases reported since 2007. But Arkansas has had only three federal convictions and one state conviction in the previous two years despite legislative attention to the issue during the last decade.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 1,180 victims and 383 cases from 2007 to 2019. The Federal Human Trafficking report, an annual publication providing data from every federal criminal and civil human trafficking case U.S. courts handle each year, is a summary of how the federal system holds traffickers accountable. It does not capture data from state legal proceedings or unreported cases.
The FHTR ranked Arkansas 32nd for the number of active criminal human trafficking cases – just five – making their way through federal courts in 2019. That’s a slight decrease from the previous year when the state ranked 28th with seven active cases.
While the numbers of identified cases and victims have increased over the past 13 years, the number of new criminal cases in Arkansas has remained stagnant over the last two years. Just two new criminal cases were filed, ranking the state at 22nd nationally.
Cody Hiland, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, pointed to the challenges his office faces when prosecuting human trafficking cases.
“The number one challenge we face is getting a victim who understands that she’s a victim and is willing to talk. Just as an example, we had a young girl that came in to be a witness in a case for a hearing and before the trial she was physically shaking and rocking back and forth saying, ‘he’s going to kill me if I testify’… ultimately she didn’t testify.”
Hiland added whether on a federal or state level, if a victim is unwilling to testify, they cannot proceed with prosecuting the case.
“Finding somebody that’s responsible to target as the subject is sometimes a challenge so there are a lot of challenges related to the subject matter,” said Hiland. “But the number one thing is getting these young ladies to understand that they are a victim and that they don’t deserve the lifestyle they have been led into.”
“The trafficker is victimizing these young girls over and over again, not just with the sex trafficking, but mentally and emotionally. They intimidate them, they feed their addiction, and it really is an impediment to them testifying in trial,” he said.
Nationwide data shows new cases decreased from 171 cases in 2018 to 145 in 2019. The number of new defendants also decreased from 297 to 271 within that same time period.
Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Arkansas convicted two individuals in 2019, while the Western District of Arkansas had the only federal conviction throughout the state in 2018. Nationwide, 339 defendants were convicted last year.
On a state level, the Administrative Office of the Courts released data on human trafficking cases for 2018 and 2019 showing just one conviction. Both years showed two active cases and less than a dozen new filings.
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, a lawmaker passionate about combatting human trafficking said she’s surprised and less than pleased with the conviction rate over the last two years.
“We really need to do a lot more because our numbers are too low. In particular, when you look at the number of calls to our hotlines and the reported number of cases, we have got to understand what is going on out there, and we have got to make sure that our law enforcement fully understands the complexity of this crime,” Irvin said.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline shows an upward trend of cases reported and the number of contacts made since 2015. During that year, 36 cases of human trafficking were reported while 134 contacts were made. The NHTH describes contacts which include phone calls, texts, online chats, emails and webforms they received that reference Arkansas.
Four years later, those numbers have increased to 86 cases reported and 220 contacts made.
It was just seven years ago when Arkansas was considered the least-prepared state to address human trafficking crimes, which led to the creation of the Human Trafficking Act of 2013.
One of the law’s sponsors, Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said the low conviction rates tell him the state is still learning how to deal with this type of crime.
“We’re still learning how to spot and prosecute these crimes. I certainly don’t think that it’s happening just all over the place, but it is absolutely something that’s happening here in Arkansas… it is something that we need to keep working to address effectively,” Leding said.
Both Irvin and Leding have plans to continue this discussion and work on public policy changes during the 2021 legislative session.
Irvin said she’s already spoken with state prosecutors to discuss the challenges they face and if public policy changes could result in a higher conviction rate.
Irvin pointed to recommendations provided by the Arkansas Attorney General’s State Task Force for the Prevention of Human Trafficking, which provided a report to the General Assembly in 2014. This report included a state plan, ways to improve information sharing and raise public awareness – areas Irvin said that need to be revisited by all stakeholders.
“It takes a lot of courage and bravery for people to come forward when they have been victims of these crimes, and it’s not until sometimes years later when something triggers a response and they will actually come forward because maybe they feel strong enough now to reveal what happened to them,” Irvin said.
Leding added, “That’s something that I think other lawmakers and I will be looking at for the next session. We want to talk to prosecutors, learn what struggles they’re facing because as some have pointed out, it can be very difficult or impossible for victims to testify.”
“We have got to accept that reality and we have got to understand it from a public policy point of view and then figure how we meet them to where they’re at,” Irvin added. “I’m not sure we do a very good job of that.”
Editor’s note: KATV senior political reporter Marine Glisovic is the author of this report. KATV, a Little Rock-based television station, is a content partner with Talk Business & Politics.