1040 words; about 5 minutes to read
This brief audio summary done by our volunteer Averi Brailey.
A post last summer looked at the work of Dr. Katrin Roots on human trafficking in Canada. The earlier post looked at the background to the current focus on this topic, as the emphasis on legal and policing mechanisms to address it with a focus on suppressing sex work and targeting certain minority groups.
This post looks at the human trafficking cases play out in the criminal justice system. Her research shows ‘troubling effects of local criminal justice anti-trafficking efforts. These include: the aggressive targeting of the sex trade; the (re)victimization of those labelled as trafficking victims by police and legal actors in court; the criminalization of racialized, impoverished and other marginalized groups, and a focus on small-time offenders but with increasingly tougher penalties’.
Who gets charged with human trafficking
Crown attorneys have a large amount of discretion over which cases will be brought to trial, and on which charges. Many cases that are now filed under human trafficking would previously have been prosecuted as prostitution-related offenses, which carried much lighter sentences and received less public attention. But with new funds and new positions, as well as media attention dedicated to human trafficking, police and Crowns have a strong incentive to use those charges instead.
The level of police activity or charges has little to do with the actual amount of ‘trafficking’. It ‘…can be explained not by an increase in the crime itself, but rather by the increased resources that have been directed to the fight against trafficking.’
The front-line efforts of anti-trafficking police are motivated by… ‘pressure to arrest and charge traffickers, competition between anti-trafficking police forces for arrest rates and funding and the need to maintain their status as ‘experts’ on trafficking’.
Racism as a main force
Those who are arrested are overwhelmingly poor, young black men. Roots analyzed 8 trafficking trials in full and 3 more partially. ‘All but one case involved an accused who was first- or second-generation immigrant and a racialized person.’ Roots also analyzed 123 court documents of individuals charged with human trafficking between 2005 and 2016 in Ontario and found that 63% of the accused were racialized and mostly Black men. This compares with 25% of Ontario’s population who identify as visible minorities.
‘Trafficking for sexual exploitation trials also reveal a strong underlying current of ‘whorephobia’, which positions sex work as dishonourable and shameful’. Meanwhile, the accused are portrayed as ‘predators’, ‘animals’ and ‘parasites’. Depictions in court of the accused often use racial stereotypes, such as allegations of living high on the avails of prostitution, even though in reality almost all the accused were quite poor. ‘Racialized stereotypes of black culture and people and particularly black men as hypersexual, violent, greedy and controlling are being utilized by police and prosecutors in making the case for trafficking… Rather than accumulating information from research conducted by academics, the government or non-government organizations, police, media and public knowledge around trafficking stems, at least in part, from a sensationalist and partly fictionalized portrayal of the situation.’
Few convictions but lots of damage
Roots found that in 55 out of the 84 cases she studied (65%), trafficking charges were withdrawn, stayed or acquitted by a judge. Of those convicted, almost all pled guilty rather than being convicted at trial. Moreover, again contrary to the rhetoric about organized crime, none of the trials studied showed evidence of criminal rings.
Although most charges do not result in convictions, the charges alone can have very large negative effects on those accused. Long periods of detention pending trial badly disrupt lives. Names and pictures are often widely disseminated in the media and online, damage from which it is impossible to recover even if the charges are dropped or the person is acquitted. These effects are clear from several recent cases where people not convicted nonetheless lost jobs and suffered other negative consequences. Once again, racial identity plays a role. In her analysis of media coverage of trafficking charges, she found that ‘pictures of racialized and especially black men accused of trafficking most commonly accompanied news coverage of charging‘.
Women are pressured to testify in trials even when they do not want to
Roots’ detailed exploration of many cases in Ontario shows that despite the rhetoric about protecting women, the Crown and police have their own motives which often work against the interests of the supposed victims. Their need to get arrests and convictions often conflict with the views and needs of the women, who, in many cases, did not see themselves as victims at all.
It is very hard to get a conviction without the evidence of the women involved, so police and Crown attorneys ‘go to great lengths in order to ensure the cooperation and eventual testimony of the labelled victim’. As summed up by one police officer, ‘these girls are the crux of our investigation. Without that girl testifying, we’re screwed. If they don’t come and testify, we’re never going to get a conviction’.
Police or Crowns may coach the woman as to what they should say in court and pressure them to comply, going so far as threats to charge the victim criminally if she fails to cooperate or, in some cases, to involve children’s services and remove children. This happens ‘against explicit protests of the complainant that they were in fact not controlled or victimized’
Women are portrayed badly both by the Crown and the defense
The women in these cases are often described in court as especially vulnerable due to issues such as drug use, family problems, or immigrant status. The Crown wants to show how they are vulnerable to exploitation. But defense lawyers use the same characteristics to argue that the testimony of the women is unreliable. Thus the the Crown and the defense often harm the women supposedly being ‘protected’.
‘In this process, where both defense and Crown attorneys pose carefully scripted questions to elicit answers that will support their version of events, the complainant becomes a pawn in the legal game of presenting the most convincing narrative.’
Roots’ research demonstrates how a rhetoric that is about public safety and protecting women turns, in practice, into something quite different and much less honourable, where the marginalized in society are victimized instead of being protected.