The Victim-Offender Duality

The Victim-Offender Duality

As a society, it comforts us to judge harshly those people who are accused of a crime. In human trafficking, it becomes incredibly easy to see these cases with no hints of nuance.

Justice is served when the trafficker goes to prison, but in far too many cases, who the justice system sees as a trafficker is actually a victim.

What happens when the victim is charged with trafficking? What happens when they are then convicted and sentenced?

What happens when the trafficking victim is implicated in another crime that is directly caused by their trafficking?

Where is the justice when a victim is again arrested for their own victimization or for being relegated to a life with no good choices?


When a Victim is Arrested for Trafficking

The justice system isn’t set up to help survivors of human trafficking in many ways.

Survivors of sex trafficker are being charged, tried and convicted on human trafficking charges.

For instance, when a trafficker (pimp/madam) requires their victims to post photos online of other victims or acquire sex buyers or clients for other victims, recruit, or even give other victims a ride to another hotel, under the strict adherence to the AMP (Action, Means, Purpose) Model, they can be charged, tried and convicted of human trafficking.

And let us make no mistake about this, victims are absolutely spending time in jails and prisons on these charges.

 “The Sexual Exploitation of Girls in the United States: The Role of Female Pimps,” analyzed the cases of 49 female offenders on federal, state and local levels, and included plea agreements and sentencing.

According to this report, only seven of these women acted alone, and 20 had a male co-defendant.

This study includes five different classifications of a female trafficker, which were “bottoms,” “girilla,” “family,” “madam/business partner,” and “handlers.”

It is important to note that not a single “handler” or “bottom” acted alone in this case study.

This is important because the “handler” and “bottom” victim-offender are typically controlled by a pimp yet, according to this study, they are serving time or have served time in federal or state prisons.

Of all the females who were sentenced on trafficking charges, 20 percent were also trafficked as minors.

According to the study, “there is little guidance available to courts and practitioners who are faced with the unique challenge of determining the culpability of female traffickers who were themselves, in some cases, violently exploited by their male co-defendants, particularly those categorized as ‘bottoms.’”

“The injustice — when you start looking into these cases and digging deeper into the facts — it becomes so much more evident,” said Christine Raino, senior director of public policy at Shared Hope International, during the World Without Exploitation Now & Next speaker series session “The Wrongful Prosecution of Sex Trafficking Victim.”

“Human trafficking laws are being used in a way they were not intended to be used,” Raino said.

How Does the Victim Become the Trafficker in the Justice System?

Victims often are arrested as traffickers because they are doing as the trafficker instructed.

In the World Without Exploitation Now & Next speaker series session “The Wrongful Prosecution of Sex Trafficking Victim,” survivor, advocate and founder of the Rebecca Bender Initiative explained what would be considered trafficking under the law as completing “household chores” in the life.

She explained that advertising other women in the house, taking them from point A to point B and even pricing sexual acts were a part of day-to-day life for victims because the trafficker instructed them to do it.

All those activities, however, would fall under the AMP Model and law enforcement and prosecutors would have leeway to charge them, and they have, including Bender herself.

“These situations are hard, they are very complex, but these are also people’s lives,” Bender said.

In the qualitative study “From Victims to Victimizers: Interviews with 25 Ex-Pimps in Chicago,” the survivors interviewed echoed this sentiment as well.

According to this limited study, 50 percent of the female pimps were coerced into pimping and 57 percent entered pimping at the request of their boyfriends.

One woman in this study said, “I didn’t want to, but it was my job to take over and get his money. He told me he would have me taken care of [injured] if I didn’t continue to take care of his business and stable [term to describe household of trafficked victims controlled by a pimp].”

Child Sexual Abuse Plays a Role

Many survivors become victimizers because of the abuse they endured, and becoming a controller was seen as an exit ramp to a less violent life.

In “From Victims to Vicitimizers,” 88 percent of the pimps interviewed experienced physical abuse as a child and 76 percent experienced childhood sexual abuse with the average age of the first assault at 9.5 years old.

Forty-eight percent ran away due to physical or sexual abuse in the home.

Another survivor in the “From Victims to Victimizers” study said she had been first trafficked by her mother and then in a message parlor where became the “manager.”

After commercial sexual exploitation was normalized in her youth by her own mother, when the manager of the parlor asked her to watch the desk a couple of times she said, “the rest was history.”

“He told me if I could recruit girls, I could run the spot myself as long as I covered each shift with at least three or four girls. I have been pimped my whole life, used by my family, and sold to any Johnny-come-lately. I was tired of selling my own body. It wasn’t my idea at first but I knew all the ropes and the girls trusted me … I wanted to run every day, but what would I do with a sixth-grade education and make the money I was making, and who is to say they would let me walk like that?”

Survivor/Ex-Pimp in “From Victim to Victimizer”

A 30-year-old woman from the same study said that her mother and two sisters were involved in commercial sexual exploitation and that her mother allowed her uncle to rape her at 9 years old.

He paid her mother and subsequently her mother collected money off of other rapes perpetrated against her.

She said, “By the time I was 12, I was used to it. If I didn’t do it we would live on the streets … I know today that I was only doing it because my mother did it to me, but the money is so good in this business and you don’t feel like you are hurting anyone. You call it pimping, I call it surviving and being smart. You either get in this world or you get got. No one will get me again like my mother did.”

When the Victim is Charged With Other Crimes

There is a wave of coverage about sex trafficking victims who have been arrested for crimes committed while they were being trafficked.

Notably, Zephi Trevino and Crystal Kizur are currently in jail or their trial is pending and Cyntioa Brown was recently released from prison after serving 15 years in prison.

And though these names are known due to advocacy, media coverage and the gravity of their charges, there are countless human trafficking victims languishing in jails and prisons for crimes they did not commit or had no other choice.

In the World Without Exploitation Now & Next speaker series session “The Wrongful Prosecution of Sex Trafficking Victim,” Bender said, “We are seeing survivors charged with an array of offenses, whether its robbery, theft, assault, aggravated assault, murder, any type of homicide you can imagine, and actually trafficking, kidnapping and conspiracy.”

Justin Moore, one of Trevino’s lawyers, said during the “World Without Exploitation Now & Next speaker series session “The Wrongful Prosecution of Sex Trafficking Victim,” that “Zephi’s case is a common fact pattern. She is locked in a grisly, grim battle for her freedom.”

Advocates can agree that the justice system is deeply flawed. Frankly, across the country the justice system as a whole is failing survivors.

“We have to talk about the way in which the justice system has failed, not only people of color, but survivors. It is not a system that is designed or equipped to create true justice or healing for so many survivors,” Bender said.

Moore explained that the justice system is a deterrent for victims to come forward and get help.

“One of the things that I have seen with prosecution is the belief that punishment can be used as a deterrent,” Moore explained.

“It is maladjusted and misguided for one reason, it is a deterrent but it is deterring victims from making outcries. It is deterring victims from trying to break out of a system of victimhood.”

What to Do

Actionable steps to ensure less survivors are going through the criminal justice system, advocates highlight the need for specialized investigations, more training to better determine culpability in an investigation and trauma-informed training for law enforcement, prosecutors and judges.

And while more training can be the start to disrupting the victim to prison pipeline, it is also important to make clear that there is no amount of training that can rid the justice system of racism, misogyny, and misogynoir – which is often at the forefront of many cases where trafficking victims are being prosecuted.

It also must be recognized that people who do harm must be held accountable, but it is time to look at how the U.S. holds harm doers accountable.

The justice system is harmful, and while traffickers are arrested the laws and punishments sweeps up victims too.

The solution to this issue is as complex as the problem itself.

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