Alabama Criminal Justice and the Sex-Trafficking SuperHighway By: Alexis Killough

Alabama Criminal Justice and the Sex-Trafficking SuperHighway

By: Alexis Killough

America is fundamentally disinclined to accept slavery of any type as a violation of basic civil rights. Despite that disinclination, serious human rights violations in the form of human trafficking are prevalent in today’s national society. In spite of superficial appearances or lack of media attention, there is a well-developed and strongly established system of human trafficking in place in and around Alabama.[1] The Well House, a nonprofit organization in Birmingham, Alabama dedicated to sheltering and rehabilitating women who were trafficked or prostituted throughout Alabama and the Southeast, identified Interstate Twenty as The Sex Trafficking Superhighway in their documentary by the same name.[2] This well-traveled road runs right through the heart of Alabama, connecting South Carolina to Texas, passing several well-known active international airports and port cities. They explain that more slaves are sold now in America than in the year before the Civil War, and that “75% of these humans are trafficked as sex slaves.”[3] The average girl trafficked for sex on Interstate Twenty is only sixteen years old, though there have been girls as young as thirteen lured into the business.[4] Frequently, when the police get involved, they arrest the girls who are prostituting, just to get them off of the streets, though generally without tracing down and arresting their pimp or trafficker.[5] According to Polaris Project data compiled from December 7th, 2007 to September 30th, 2016, the Polaris Project’s hotlines received 954 calls from Alabama, from which they found 255 cases of potential human trafficking.[6] Nearly half of the victims from these cases were foreign nationals, not United States citizens.[7] This indicates that individuals are being trafficked into Alabama for sex and labor, not just being removed and traded to elsewhere, so the trafficking through Alabama has national and international implications.

The Alabama code defines Human Trafficking in the First Degree, a Class A Felony, as knowingly subjecting another person to servitude through the use of coercion or deception.[8] Alabama also lays out the crime of Human Trafficking in the Second Degree, a Class B Felony, for anyone who knowingly benefits from engagement in said illegal coerced servitude.[9] A victim’s history of sexual activity or voluntary prostitution, connection to defendant by blood or marriage, consent, or a mistake as to the age of the victim are not defenses to human trafficking under Alabama law.[10] However, victims of human trafficking who are charged with offenses relating to their status as trafficked individuals may use that fact as a defense against any charges arising out of their trafficked status, such as prostitution.[11] Finally, the Alabama human trafficking criminal laws demand that the defendant, upon conviction, will have to pay restitution to the victim, including medical and psychological treatment costs, transportation costs, value of the labor given by the victim, and any other expenses or losses incurred by the victim as a result of the defendant’s wrongdoing, regardless of whether the victim remains in America for recovery or returns to their home country or another country for shelter.[12] For any additional monetary damages, victims are permitted to bring a civil suit against their trafficker for compensatory or punitive damages, among other relief measures.[13]

In addition to those basic provisions, Alabama laws provide additional protections to juveniles who are or may be victims of human trafficking. A child under the age of 18 who is a victim of human trafficking cannot be adjudicated delinquent or transferred to adult court and criminally convicted for prostitution and juvenile intake officers are ordered to look into the social history of each child reported for prostitution to determine if they might be a victim of human trafficking.[14] Instead of punishing those juvenile victims for their illegal acts, Alabama juvenile courts will declare them to be a child in need of supervision, allowing them to come under the protection of the juvenile system and receive all of the requisite social services without punishing them for a situation that was beyond their control.[15] This further protects the juvenile from the stigma of delinquency status in addition to the stigma of being a trafficking victim and allows them to recover from their situation and return to a normal life.

In compliance with and assistance to the enforcement of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, the United States Department of State produces and publishes annual reports on international human trafficking evaluating the overall status of human trafficking, as well as investigating each country’s compliance with the Protocol.[16] It compiles information from embassies, governmental and non-governmental organization, reports and news articles, research trips, and academic studies.[17] With that information, the Department places countries into a tiered ranking system: Tier 1 indicates that the country’s government has acknowledged the problem and made efforts to address it while meeting the Trafficking Victim Protection Act’s minimum standards in that regard; Tier 2 indicates that the country’s government is not fully in compliance with the Trafficking Victim Protection Act’s standards, but are working towards compliance; Tier 2 Watch List includes countries who fit into Tier 2 but have a significant and/or increasing number of trafficking victims; Tier 3 countries are not in compliance nor are they making significant strides towards compliance.[18]

Alabama, evaluated as an independent country, rather than a state, would likely be ranked by the United States Department of State as a Tier 2 country in a Trafficking in Persons Report. From the surface, Alabama seems like it would easily be a Tier 1 country; the laws in place offer thorough protection to victims and leave plenty of room to properly prosecute and punish perpetrators.[19] This is unsurprising, given that Alabama is of course part of the United States, itself a Tier 1 country.[20] However, the enforcement of those laws seems to be the downfall of the state. As explained above and in The Well House’s documentary on human trafficking in Alabama, police in Alabama often arrest human trafficking victims for prostitution.[21] This seems to put Alabama, viewed independently, more in line with Albania, a Tier 2 country.[22] Both Albania and Alabama have good laws in place but have some problems when it comes to strictly following that legislation.[23]

Quite frankly, it is shameful that Alabama would only receive a Tier 2 ranking. As part of the United States of America, it is expected that Alabama would be a shining example of how to handle human rights issues surrounding human trafficking, just as the United States is regarded as being. Fortunately, however, the existing problems are relatively minor. Unlike the Tier 3 countries, Alabama at least has the appropriate legislation and infrastructure in place to protect the rights of human trafficking victim’s the way it should. All it will take is an adjustment in a few enforcement mechanisms and maybe a shift in the general mindset of some law enforcement. Instead of arresting every person suspected of being a prostitute, police should engage in a dialogue with that individual, gaining a social history on the person, before deciding the appropriate course of action. While the fact that juvenile courts and criminal courts will protect trafficked individuals once charges are brought and their status as trafficking victims is revealed, the arrest itself is stigmatizing and traumatizing. Instead, it would be ideal if those victims were treated as such from the moment they first encounter law enforcement. Then, law enforcement can take on the protective reputation they should ideally embody and the victims will feel safe, something Alabama can be proud of. Alabama is rarely, if ever, on the cutting edge, but protecting the human rights of trafficking victims in compliance with international standards would offer the state a chance to stand out for something positive.

[1] Till Spencer, The I-20 Story: The Sex Trafficking Superhighway, The WellHouse,

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Alabama, National Human Trafficking Resource Center,

[7] Id.

[8] Ala. Code § 13A-6-152.

[9] Ala. Code § 13A-6-153.

[10] Ala. Code § 13A-6-154.

[11] Ala. Code § 13A-6-159.

[12] Ala. Code § 13A-6-155.

[13] Ala. Code § 13A-6-157.

[14] Ala. Code § 12-15-701.

[15] Id.

[16] See, U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking Persons Report 2016.

[17] U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking Persons Report 2016, at 36 (2016).

[18] U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking Persons Report 2016, at 36-39 (2016).

[19] See, Ala. Code § 13A-6-(150-160).

[20] U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking Persons Report 2016, at 387 (2016).

[21] Spencer, supra note 8.

[22] U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking Persons Report 2016, at 68 (2016).

[23] U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking Persons Report 2016, at 68 (2016).


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