To over­come the hur­dles to iden­ti­fying and pros­e­cuting human-​​trafficking cases, police and pros­e­cu­tors must sig­nif­i­cantly bol­ster edu­ca­tion and training and develop coor­di­nated, proac­tive inves­ti­ga­tion strate­gies, according to a new report pre­pared by North­eastern researchers in con­junc­tion with the Washington-​​based Urban Institute.

The report, released on Monday, was spon­sored by the National Insti­tute of Jus­tice, the research, devel­op­ment and eval­u­a­tion agency of the U.S. Depart­ment of Justice.

Amy Far­rell, assis­tant pro­fessor in the School of Crim­i­nology and Crim­inal Jus­tice, and Jack McDe­vitt, asso­ciate dean of research in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences & Human­i­ties, con­ducted the two-​​year study. Both Far­rell and McDe­vitt are staff mem­bers in Northeastern’s Insti­tute on Race and Jus­tice.

The study ana­lyzed 140 closed traf­ficking cases in 12 sites across the country, seeking to iden­tify the chal­lenges local, state and fed­eral law enforce­ment face in iden­ti­fying, inves­ti­gating and pros­e­cuting human-​​trafficking cases.

We hope our work will result in the devel­op­ment of sys­tems within police and pros­e­cu­tors’ offices to pro­mote iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and inves­ti­ga­tion,” Far­rell said. “Securing suc­cessful human-​​trafficking pros­e­cu­tions about more than just having a local cham­pion for this issue. There need to be orga­ni­za­tional sys­tems in place that include training, spe­cial­ized per­sonnel and resources.”

The study did not aim to deter­mine national trends using this data or draw con­clu­sions about pat­terns of human-​​trafficking pros­e­cu­tions nationwide.

The report found that law enforce­ment face sev­eral chal­lenges in han­dling human-​​trafficking cases. The most sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges include a lack of aware­ness among law enforce­ment and the public of the problem, a reliance on reac­tive strate­gies such as waiting for vic­tims to come for­ward, neg­a­tive atti­tudes toward human-​​trafficking vic­tims and a low pri­or­i­ti­za­tion to pros­e­cute these cases. The report also found that vic­tims are largely fearful of reporting these crimes and suffer a number of trauma-​​related con­di­tions that require sig­nif­i­cant support.

Among the report’s major find­ings were that the majority of cases iden­ti­fied were sex-​​trafficking cases and that pros­e­cu­tors are reluc­tant to use newer laws in place when trying human-​​trafficking cases — instead refer­ring to older laws they are more familiar with.

The report rec­om­mends bol­stering edu­ca­tion and aware­ness of the issue from orga­ni­za­tions that sup­port law enforce­ment agen­cies, offering com­pre­hen­sive sup­port and empow­er­ment to vic­tims and taking a more proac­tive approach to inves­ti­ga­tion and pros­e­cu­tion that includes cre­ating spe­cial­ized units to handle sex– and labor-​​trafficking cases.

The report also looked at the effec­tive­ness of a 2000 fed­eral law that defines a new set of crimes related to human traf­ficking and enhances penal­ties for existing offenses. Since then, 49 states have enacted leg­is­la­tion crim­i­nal­izing human trafficking.

At a National Insti­tute of Jus­tice con­fer­ence held Monday morning in Vir­ginia, Acting U.S. Asso­ciate Attorney Gen­eral Tony West noted the report “will be a tremen­dous resource in our work to fight traf­ficking crimes.”

In addi­tion to helping us better appre­ciate the dimen­sions of human traf­ficking, this report under­scores the need for renewed vig­i­lance in fighting these crimes,” West said.

Far­rell will present the study’s results at the con­fer­ence on Tuesday afternoon.

Far­rell and McDe­vitt col­lab­o­rated on the report with North­eastern grad­uate research assis­tant Rebecca Pfeffer and senior research asso­ciate Stephanie Fahy. North­eastern part­nered with the Urban Insti­tute, a non­profit, non­par­tisan policy research and edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion based in Wash­ington, D.C., that exam­ines the social, eco­nomic and gov­er­nance chal­lenges facing the nation.

View selected pub­li­ca­tions from the Insti­tute on Race and Jus­tice in IRis, Northeastern’s dig­ital archive.