A dollar of prevention is worth $34 in prosecution.

On August 22, 2014, by Sarah Lachman

Fighting trafficking is costly; it costs the government to enforce laws, lock up offenders, and restore victims. In a time where resources are tight, states are implementing prevention techniques to reduce costs. Prevention has shown to reduce incarceration rates and costs, provide education for vulnerable children to be more productive to society, and prevent harms directly caused by trafficking.

The problem of sex trafficking has gained recognition among lawmakers in recent years. States have introduced laws mostly consisting of harsher punishments for offenders and affirmative defenses or safe harbor laws for victims. More can be done as new laws focus on the criminalization of the abuser, but fail to recognize that a victim still suffers the effects of the abuse, regardless if their abuser was brought to justice or not.[1] Victim rehabilitation and prison for offenders place a heavy financial burden on the government and the taxpayer.

To avoid this heavy financial burden and proactively stop the problem, states and non-profits are beginning to introduce prevention programs. The purpose of these programs is to educate those most vulnerable to sex trafficking how to recognize the signs of being coerced into trafficking and avoid becoming involved in dangerous situations. One such program is the Runaway Intervention Project in Ramsey County, Minnesota. This program requires girls who have not yet been sexually abused to take a course on empowerment.[2] The populations of girls most vulnerable to trafficking are runaways and homeless girls, which also creates the need to implement housing solutions in prevention programs.[3] A good prevention program includes both an education aspect and a housing aspect, both costly measures, but long term very beneficial.

High costs are unavoidable for both preventative and reactionary measures, but preventative measures make long term impacts. With high incarceration costs and states spending between 5-10% over their budget on the correction system[4] the federal government has recently begun bi-partisan talks for a Justice Reinvention Initiative.[5] Reinvention initiative programs take the money invested in the incarceration costs of repeat offenders and instead invest that money into programs for repeat offenders and preventative measures. The idea of justice reinvention can be transferred to the specific problem of trafficking with the goal of spending less on incarceration costs and using that money to invest in government sponsored prevention programs for trafficking victims. Reinvention programs take money out of incarceration and put it toward prevention, making prevention even more cost effective.

Current bills and funding are mostly directed toward reactionary measures, making sure offenders are prosecuted and victims find recovery. For example, SB 192, recently passed in Hawaii, has been praised for increasing the penalty for soliciting a minor and extending the statute of limitations for coerced prostitution.[6] Although steps such as this are necessary, without prevention programs they can only lead to higher incarceration rates and costs associated with incarceration. If prevention programs are put into place, the number of trafficking victims would lessen, therefore there would be fewer violations, fewer trials, and fewer incarcerations as a result of human trafficking and less government money spent in these areas.

Recently, a Minnesota research group conducted a cost benefit analysis on the costs of human trafficking prevention programs versus prosecution and incarceration. The results showed that preventative measures were the more cost effective solution by a remarkable $34 saved per $1 spent in a prevention program.[7] The quantitative research was very cautious by only analyzing financial burdens that came as a direct result of the trafficking, and where research was minimal, always taking the conservative estimate. These numbers showed that despite the high cost of prevention, taxpayers would still save $5,120 per individual in the first year alone.[8] These estimates do not include social benefits that survivors will be able to contribute to society, which would make the economic benefits even higher. The social benefits include women being able to continue in the workforce and not be on public assistance or be unable to contribute to society as a result of the harms suffered by a trafficker. This research concludes that prevention programs are the best option to handle human trafficking and should be initiated more.

In addition to short term financial benefits, prevention programs should also decrease incarceration and court costs over a longer period of time. At the beginning, both prevention and criminal prosecution programs will need to be in place. However, as time progresses, the prevention programs allow for fewer children to become victims and therefore fewer cases being prosecuted and hence, lower incarceration rates. If the prevention programs remain strong, over time the hopes would be to eliminate the problem completely, reaffirming the importance of implementing prevention programs nationwide.

The results of the study were very careful not to consider any benefits provided by NGOs. However, state sponsored prevention programs in conjunction with NGOs that offer shelter and education to at-risk youth, will create an even larger differential between the amounts spent on prevention centers versus the amount spent on responsive measures. Although there are not nearly enough resources offered to trafficking victims, there are shelters set up across the United States offering resources.[9] These organizations would help relieve some of the burden from government and would create a bigger financial relief than what has already been calculated.

Being a victim of trafficking also leaves certain physical and emotional scars that have a negative impact on an individual’s production within society. This also includes life impacting diseases and traumas that negatively affect a person’s ability to contribute to society. Emotional wounds can also cause problems that lead a person to not be able to be productive later in life.[10] The lack of productivity in the survivors adds to the costs of reactionary measures toward trafficking and each individual with these problems as a result of being trafficked become a heavier burden on society. Completely preventing physical and emotional health issues creates more productive citizens and supports the importance of prevention programs.

Economic research supports that prevention programs will be the most financially beneficial strategy for combating human trafficking and should be the leading way to deal with human trafficking across the nation. Additionally, prevention is the most moral approach to the problem as well. Financially, it is expensive to both take care of victims’ pre trauma and post trauma, but there is a moral victory knowing that someone never had to suffer as a result of being a victim of human trafficking. Prevention programs are important for the health and safety of vulnerable children. Additionally, they will save the government money and lower incarceration rates. These programs should be the focus of new legislation to minimize human trafficking as opposed to harsher criminal sentencing.


[1] This year, Wyoming passes law criminalizing human trafficking: Trevor Brown, New Wyoming Laws Start Monday, Wyomingnews.com, June 29, 2013, http://www.wyomingnews.com/articles/2013/06/30/news/20local_06-30-13.txt.

Hawaii increases penalties of trafficking: Hawaii Gov. Abercrombie Signs Human Trafficking Bills, Hawaii Reporter, July 2nd, 2013, last accessed July 16, 2013, http://www.hawaiireporter.com/hawaii-gov-abercrombie-signs-human-trafficking-bills/123.

[2] Runaway Intervention Project, Ramsey County, last accessed July 16, 2013, http://www.co.ramsey.mn.us/Attorney/RunawayInterventionProject.htm

[3] Males are also victims of trafficking and should not be ignored.  And Boys Too, Ecpat-USA, May 30, 2013, www.ecpatusa.org

[4] Christian Henrichson and Ruth Delaney, The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers, Vera Institute of Justice, February 29, 2012, http://www.vera.org/pubs/price-prisons-what-incarceration-costs-taxpayers

[5] Justice Reinvention Initiative, Bureau of Justice Assistance U.S. Department of Justice, last accessed: July 16, 2013, https://www.bja.gov/ProgramDetails.aspx?Program_ID=92

[6] Hawaii Gov. Abercrombie Signs Human Trafficking Bills, Hawaii Reporter, July 2nd, 2013, last accessed July 16, 2013, http://www.hawaiireporter.com/hawaii-gov-abercrombie-signs-human-trafficking-bills/123.

[7] Lauren Martin, Early Intervention to Avoid Sex Trading and Trafficking of Minnesota’s Female Youth: A Benefit-Cost Analysis, an executive summary, Minnesota Indian Woman’s Resource Center 8 (2012).

[8] Id.

[9] Shelter Beds for Human Trafficking Survivors in the United States, the Polaris Project, last accessed July 17, 2013, http://www.durr.polarisproject.org/2012/10/29/severe-shelter-beds-shortage-for-survivors-of-human-trafficking

[10] Lauren Martin, Early Intervention to Avoid Sex Trading and Trafficking of Minnesota’s Female Youth: A Benefit-Cost Analysis, Full Report, Minnesota Indian Woman’s Resource Center 3-4 (2012).

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