The 14% decline in prosecutions in 2019 was the first time since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000 that prosecutions have dropped in two consecutive years, according to the report. Overall, federal prosecutions of human traffickers have dropped by about a third since 2017, the report found.
The decrease came entirely from a drop in prosecutions of sex trafficking, according to the report, which has consistently made up the majority of federal human trafficking prosecutions since the TVPA was enacted.
The number of labor trafficking cases has remained roughly the same, with prosecutors filing 11 such cases in 2017 and nine in both 2018 and 2019, the report found. The number of new sex trafficking cases, meanwhile, dropped from 207 in 2017 to just 136 filed in 2019, according to the report.
Including both new and old cases, there are about 600 federal human trafficking prosecutions still active in the federal courts.
Roberson said that it was unclear what the cause of the drop was, though she speculated it might be due to the combined passage of the the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, collectively known as SESTA-FOSTA, in 2017.
"There was always a question of what was going to be the practical impact of that legislation," Roberson said.
Although the laws were designed to make it more difficult for sex traffickers to operate on the internet, she said that it's also possible it has made it more difficult for law enforcement to identify victims and pursue investigations.
Instead of being able to pursue investigations through sites like Backpage.com, Roberson explained, SESTA-FOSTA might make it more difficult for investigators to develop cases from online sources.
However, she stressed that the exact reason for the drop was still unclear.
Where the criminal justice system might have backed off, however, the number of civil cases spiked, according to the report, possibly suggesting that victims unable to get justice through criminal prosecutions might be pursuing cases for themselves, though that, too, remains uncertain.
Although forced labor cases have historically outnumber sex trafficking cases on the civil side — in 2017, there were only six sex trafficking lawsuits filed and 35 new labor trafficking suits, for instance — in 2019, the number of sex trafficking cases skyrocketed to 43, nearly matching the 45 newly filed labor trafficking cases.
Roberson also noted that while the decline in prosecutions was concerning, she was encouraged by data showing that both sentence length and restitution payments in forced labor prosecutions had gone up in 2019.
Forced labor, she explained, was often harder to identify because the trafficked workers were engaging in legal industries. It made it harder to know if a particular waiter or house cleaner or farm worker was trapped in a job because their employer had confiscated their passport, for example, or used threats of physical violence.
"It's so much harder to tell if those workers are coerced," Roberson said, because the work itself was above board, even if the employer's behavior was not.
However, she said, although the number of labor trafficking cases filed had stayed roughly static, the outcomes in recent years were "encouraging."
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--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.