Do High Prison Sentences Reduce Human Trafficking?

(The following is an excerpt from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery (2016). Beginning on January 11th, every other day I’ll be posting excerpts from my book to help readers learn more about this issue during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Essential Abolitionist answers the most often-asked questions about human trafficking, and the response to modern slavery.)


The impulse to imprison traffickers is understandable. Traffickers who exploit the vulnerable—particularly the youngest victims—should be imprisoned for a very long time indeed. That is my opinion, and one shared by most people.

In theory, prison sentencing helps prevent crime in two ways. First, incarceration removes the opportunity for the offender to commit crime; a person in prison can’t commit crime. The second is achieved through deterrence. A potential offender may decide not to engage in a particular criminal activity for fear of going to prison. In theory, the higher the potential sentence, the higher the level of deterrence.

But there is very little empirical evidence supporting the contention that higher prison sentences prevent crime, and in 25 years of police work, I never met a criminal who examined the penal code to check the potential prison sentences before committing a crime.

Raising prison sentences alone will have limited—if any—impact on human trafficking. To be clear, I’m not opposed to high prison sentences. As a police officer investigating sex crimes, I was always trying to get the highest sentence possible depending upon the background of the offender and the circumstances of the crime. But high prison sentencing standards alone should not be promoted as an effective way of preventing crime.

The most effective means of using criminal sentencing to impact human trafficking is to prosecute and imprison for human trafficking. As examined previously, the biggest challenge in law enforcement is training those on the front lines to effectively investigate, prosecute, and obtain convictions for human trafficking charges. Before campaigning for higher prison sentences, we should examine how often current human trafficking statutes are being used and increase the awareness and expertise of police and prosecutors. These actions will increase human trafficking convictions.

Prison sentences also carry the high costs associated with incarceration. As a result, legislators may resist increasing prison sentences simply based on expense. This obstacle presents another reason abolitionists might be more effective by focusing on how current laws are employed—rather than on raising prison sentences.

I offer an additional thought, purely my own opinion, based upon my experience assisting victims of many different types of crime. Some people seek higher sentencing standards for sex trafficking than labor trafficking, usually viewing commercial sex exploitation as a form of sexual assault and therefore more heinous than labor exploitation. But consider these situations: An 8-year-old girl is forced to work as a domestic servant, beaten and abused until she is freed four years later; or the woman enslaved as a domestic servant for eighteen years—over half her life—before being identified. Should their victimizations be deemed less heinous because they were not forced into commercial sex? I’ll leave this question open for discussion.

Alas, there are no quick fixes to modern slavery. The complexities should now be apparent. There is a popular anti-trafficking slogan used to point out the difficulty of identifying trafficking victims within the hidden world of modern slavery: “Look beneath the surface.” When examining our collective approach to modern slavery, we also need to look beneath the surface for what can be truly effective.

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