The District Attorney of Manhattan, Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., has successfully prosecuted and convicted a 35-year old man for running a sex trafficking and prostitution operation across New York and New Jersey. Michael Lamb was found guilty and is expected to be sentenced in September of this year.
Lamb targeted homeless and runaway teenagers, where he exploited their weaknesses, vulnerabilities and addictions to turn them into sex slaves. He exerted control to the extent where he threatened to send nude photos to family members and friends, creating an environment of isolation and fear. He was caught when he began posting ads targeting teens who sought refuge at the Covenant House, a local homeless shelter which provides temporary housing to teens. He also used the traditional ads for sex crimes, like Craigslist and Backpage, targeting young women staying at Covenant House.
Lamb is just the latest convict in a string of crimes that involve the trafficking of young, vulnerable people for sex and slave labor. In New York, with its major airports, international ports, and high population which allows for anonymity, sex trafficking is a big issue. Many times, smuggler will promise young women living in poverty both abroad and in America that they will provide a good life for them, get them a job or training. In reality, once under the smugglers control, all forms of identification, including passports, are confiscated by the smugglers, and the victims are told that they have to work for them until their ‘debt’ is repaid.
Because of its secretive nature, it is a notoriously difficult crime to track and prosecute. As with many large-scale criminal enterprises, police and prosecutors are more interested in targeting the ringleaders of the group – who are far more insulated and protected – than the individuals who carry out the daily tasks. This can make a sex-trafficking operation and investigation quite lengthy. One recent sex ring was busted after a two-year long investigation. On top of that is the likelihood that victims will rarely reach out for help, because they are scared, have been threatened, and simply have nowhere to go or anyone to speak to. These victims are largely invisible – undocumented (if they are foreign), and unreported or unwanted (if they are domestic). As of 2012, the International Labor Organization predicted that there were close to 21 million human trafficking victims across the world, with sexual exploitation being the number one form of forced labor. Closer to home, in the United States, more than 4,000 cases of sex trafficking were reported in 2012 – a small part of an industry estimated to earn more than $150 billion annually. It appears to only be growing as well – with the advent of social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and even Snapchat or dating apps, the pimps and people who target young women have a much larger, more flexible, and invisible grasp on their victims.
A major issue facing the victims of sex trafficking is the lack of ‘safe harbor’ laws. These laws are created to protect victims from sex trafficking, by ensuring they won’t be prosecuted for their role in the sex crimes. However, many states either do not have such legislation, or local law enforcement fails to properly implement them, detaining young women and prosecuting them for crimes of which they are themselves a victim. This can present a unique challenge to defense attorneys, paired with victims, often young, without resources or support, and facing a felony charge, particularly when local police departments and governments do not believe that human trafficking is much of an issue. Awareness needs to be raised in order to provide more resources for victims, including their attorneys, to fight human and sex trafficking the country.