Verdicts & Settlements

Despite mandatory restitution law, courts rarely award trafficking victims lost wages, study finds

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Federal law requires individuals found guilty of human trafficking to pay victims lost wages, but courts only award monetary compensation in 36 percent of all cases, a report released Tuesday found.

And out of all trafficking cases, ones that involve sex work are the least likely to receive monetary awards, Reuters reports, even when the victims are children. The article also states that sex trafficking is far more prevalent and profitable than human trafficking involving other types of work.

The report (PDF), entitled “When ‘Mandatory’ Does Not Mean Mandatory: Failure to Obtain Criminal Restitution in Federal Prosecution of Human Trafficking”, relied on cases between 2009 and 2012. It was co-published by the Tahirih Justice Center’s Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center and by Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.

According to the report, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 directs that federal courts “shall order restitution for any offense” committed under the anti-trafficking statutes for the “full amount of the victim’s losses.” The act also provides a formula to calculate the restitution.

“The law requires a human trafficking restitution award to include whichever is greater: the value of the victim’s work under the [Fair Labor Standards Act] or the value to the defendant of the services the victim was forced (or induced, in the case of children) to provide,” the report reads. “The value to a defendant of commercial sexual services tends to vastly exceed the minimum wage. One would expect restitution amounts in sex trafficking cases to dwarf those awarded in forced labor cases.”

Despite this, the report states, prosecutors sought restitution in only 61 percent of the cases of sex-trafficking prosecutions studied. When restitution requests were made, only 44 percent were granted. For sex-trafficking convictions that included monetary awards, the average restitution order was $151,076.58.

In contrast, the study found that in labor-trafficking cases, monetary awards were asked for 87 percent of the time, and granted 93 percent of time. The average restitution order in those cases was $228,201.82.

According to Reuters, defense lawyers often argue that victims of sex trafficking don’t deserve restitution, because the work is illegal. Also, the report found that laborers in trafficking cases were far more likely to have counsel than sex workers.

“Why are our federal courts allowing traffickers to keep their windfall earnings obtained through exploiting trafficking victims?” asked Martina Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center. “Trafficking victims desperately need these funds to recover from the ordeal of abuse and exploitation.”

See also:

ABA Journal: “New legislative strategy is tougher on human trafficking and more supportive of victims”

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