Breaking the Bonds, Slavery in Modern Day America

Breaking the Bonds, Slavery in Modern Day America

Katherine Reeves

          To most Americans, slavery in the United States is a thing of the past. It’s just a part of history and nothing to be concerned about in the Modern Day United States.  This idea could not be farther from the truth.  In fact, four times the amount of people in the United States have been sold into slavery in 2013 then the year before the Civil War.[1] There are many organizations dedicated to bringing about awareness to this worldwide epidemic of human trafficking and to assisting the victims.  Both state and federal legislatures have begun to recognize a need for laws to help regulate this activity within the United States, but there is still work to be done.

The most common form of human trafficking exists in the form of sex trade.  Up to 75% of people entered into slavery in 2013 become part of sex trafficking.[2] It occurs in forms of prostitution, sexual entertainment, sexual servitude, exotic dancing, pornography, and servile marriage.[3] It’s a big business.  Sex trafficking is estimated to be second only to the drug trade in illegal business revenue in the United States.[4] In our own back yard, Interstate 20 (specifically from Birmingham to Atlanta) is known to have the highest volume of sex trafficking in the United States.[5] This interstate has earned the nickname of “the sex trafficking Superhighway.”[6]

What is being done about this terrible epidemic? In 2000, The United Nations recognized the need for action and passed the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol).[7]  The Protocol identifies human trafficking as an international epidemic and encourages states to enact anti-trafficking legislation to begin dealing with the problem.[8] The United States signed the Protocol and, shortly thereafter, enacted federal legislation following the recommendations of the Protocol.

The legislation on Human Trafficking stems from the well-known 13th Amendment of the Constitution.[9] Following the 13th Amendment, Section 152 of the United States Code, led to the Supreme Court defining involuntary servitude to only by physical or legal coercion, not psychological coercion.[10]  After the passing of the Palermo Protocol, Congress expanded the definition to include psychological protocol in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).[11] TVPA also entitled victims to federal aid and authorized the Department of State to deliver reports of human trafficking worldwide.[12] Congress also expanded the legislation in 2003 to allow victims to seek civil remedies against their traffickers.[13] Reauthorization of TVPA in 2005 and 2008 expanded trafficking legislation to include “recruited, enticed, harbored, transported, provided, or obtained.”[14] Also, the reauthorizations established rehabilitation facilities and, most importantly, recognized human trafficking as a domestic crisis and authorized the Attorney General to research the extent of the domestic impact.[15]

The recognition of human trafficking as a domestic issue in the United States leads to a call for more localized action by the states.[16] State legislation to combat human trafficking falls into three trends: the Model Structure, the Individualistic Approach, and the Structuralist Trend.[17]  The Model Structure, following a model produced by the Department of Justice, indicates a single piece of legislation defining sex trafficking and other forms of human trafficking.[18] It is known for focusing on the prosecution of offenders.[19] This type of legislation, however, limits the distinction between sex crimes and other, less serious, offenses and provides difficulty in establishing enhancements for sexual crimes against children over labor crimes.[20] The Individualistic Approach includes legislation focused more on the human-rights side of trafficking.[21] This type of legislation aims to protect individual choices and often decriminalizes acts of the victims that would otherwise be illegal and provides for extensive victim services to assist in victim rehabilitation.[22] The Structuralist Approach adopts blanket protection for women involved in the sex trade and juvenile trafficking of all forms. These forms of legislation are often called “safe-harbor” laws, which “allow courts to forgive trafficking victims for unlawful acts they have committed during the course of their trafficking experience.”[23]

Alabama falls somewhere in the middle of all of these trends. Representatives Jack Williams and Merika Coleman Act of the Alabama Code lays out the State’s approach to human trafficking.[24] Alabama Law defines human trafficking and grants victims the right to seek civil relief against their traffickers, although statutes of limitations do apply.[25] Additionally, Alabama is one of eight states that allow the award of punitive damages.[26] Applying concepts of the Structuralist Approach, Alabama also provides an affirmative defense for all acts of “sexually explicit performance” preformed by victims of human trafficking. [27]

With all the legislation in the United States aimed at ending human trafficking, the main barrier lies in identification.  Identification is difficult for many reasons.  Human trafficking is intentionally a “hidden crime” and many victims travel throughout many jurisdictions.[28] Additionally, victims do not identify themselves or seek help often due to physical or psychological constraints by the trafficker or fear of legal ramifications such as prosecution or deportation for their crimes committed while enslaved.[29]

Many organizations are dedicated to improving identification of human trafficking victims by raising awareness and offering assistance to victims.   One of the largest and most recognized of these organizations is known as the Polaris Project. The Polaris Project offers client services through case management, participates in policy advocacy, provides training and technical assistance, and operates a 24-hour hotline.[30] These organizations all push for government action, but more importantly they stress the importance of cultural change and of actions of individuals.[31]

Our government has made great strides towards the elimination of human trafficking, but individuals must step forward to make a difference. As Americans, we must recognize that human trafficking violates all basic freedoms that we stand for in the United States and we cannot continue to be complacent.  We cannot allow ourselves to be blind to the deprivation of the civil rights and liberties we so openly boast.  It is important to be educated about human trafficking, learn the signs, and to speak up in questionable situations.  Public awareness is the first major step in the mission to combat human trafficking in the United States and we must step up.  We must take action for the victims.


[1] I-20: The Sex-Trafficking Superhighway, The WellHouse, http://the-wellhouse.org/i20/ (last visited October 25, 2013)

[2] Id.

[3] T.K. Logan et al., Understanding Human Trafficking in the United States, 10 TRAUMA, VIOLENCE AND ABUSE 9 (2009).

[4] Priscila A. Rocha, Our Backyard Slave Trade: The Result of Ohio’s Failure to Enact Comprehensive State-Level Human-Sex-Trafficking Legislation, 25 J.L. & Health 415, 424 (2012)

[5] I-20: The Sex-Trafficking Superhighway, supra note 1

[6] Id.

[7] Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, G.A Res. 25, Annex II, U.N. GAOR, 55th Sess., Supp. No. 49, at 2 [hereinafter Protocol]

[8] Rocha, supra note 4, at 420

[9] Id at 425

[10] United States v. Kozminski, 487 U.S. 931, 941 (1988).

[11] Rocha, supra note 4, at 426

[12] Id. at 427

[13] Id.

[14] Id. (quoting Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003, Pub. L. No. 108-193 § 4(a)(4)(A), § 4(b)(1)(A), and § 5(a)(3) (2003))

[15] Rocha, supra note 4, at 427

[16] Id.

[17] Leslie Klaassen, Breaking the Victimization Cycle: Domestic Minor Trafficking in Kansas, 52 Washburn L.J. 581, 594 (2013)

[18] Id. at 595

[19] Id. at 596

[20] Id. at 595

[21] Id. at 596

[22] Id.

[23] U.S. Dept. of State, Trafficking in Persons Rep. (2013) at 24.

[24] Ala. Code § 13A-6-150 (West 2011)

[25] Ala. Code § 13A-6-157 (West 2011); Ala. Code § 13A-6-158 (West 2011)

[26] Janelle Zabresky, Creating A Safe Harbor for Florida’s Children: An Overview of Florida’s Legislative Evolution in Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, 40 Fla. St. U. L. Rev. 415, 436 (2013).

[27] Ala. Code § 13A-6-159 (West 2011)

[28] Allison L. Cross, Slipping Through the Cracks: The Dual Victimization of Human-Trafficking Survivors, 44 McGeorge L. Rev. 395, 402 (2013)

[29] Id. at 402

[30] The Polaris Project, http://www.polarisproject.org/what-we-do (last visited October 27, 2013)

[31] U.S. Dept. of State, Trafficking in Persons Rep. (2013) at 27.

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