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Prosecutors say they evaluate those cases carefully to see whether criminal charges are appropriate — even as they recognize that these women were probably recruited at a young age and victimized, too — but often give them a chance at probation and recovery rather than prison, as the pimps would get.
Rice said victim advocates have called him out on prosecuting such women before. “Still, some mother’s child is being recruited for human trafficking,” he said. “I can’t just let that go.”
Susan Munsey, executive director of GenerateHope, a safehouse and recovery program for sex-trafficking victims, acknowledges the challenge but leans toward recognizing female recruiters as victims.
“These guys distance themselves as much from the crime as possible,” she said, and oftentimes the sex worker takes the fall. “They’re in a very difficult situation and they’re finding a way to survive it.”
She recalled the case of one trafficker who used a young woman’s phone to contact a minor, and then sent the woman to the bus stop to pick her up. The minor turned out to be an undercover officer, and the woman was arrested and charged. As part of her sentence, she was ordered to be registered as a sex offender.
“I have a problem with that,” Munsey said.
The single greatest challenge to bringing a human-trafficking case to prosecution is not only finding the victim, but getting the victim to participate in the case.
“It’s critical,” Dumanis said.
Prosecutors and investigators run into similar difficulties with domestic violence victims — the dependency on their abuser, the isolation from family, the emotional and physical abuse and the threat to not only their own safety, but their family’s.
“What we’re seeing is each case is equally difficult to investigate and do than any homicide because of the complexity of the cases and the ability to keep victims safe,” said Stephan, the chief deputy DA. “Because of gang involvement, there are a lot of witness relocations. The trauma is so resistant and long lasting, we end up having to make sure services are provided for years and years and years to our victims.”
Munsey at GenerateHope described their condition as similar to the Stockholm Syndrome.
“They’ve bonded with their captors, and they started in adolescence, when their brains aren’t fully developed yet,” she said. “It’s usually a year of going through therapy before they figure out that they’ve been duped. It’s only then they are able to say, ‘That jerk, this is what he did to me.’”
Of the women GenerateHope sees each year, she estimates only 10 to 20 percent are involved in the prosecution of their pimps. “That’s low,” Munsey acknowledged.
The county has successfully prosecuted pimps without a victim’s cooperation or testimony, usually with solid evidence taken during an undercover sting and with complete cellphone or Facebook communications between victim and pimp, Rice said. Still, he said, juries typically want to hear from the victim herself.
Getting the victims out of their environments and into a safe space is also critical for getting a victim on the path to testifying and turning her life around.
A lack of bedspace in the county has proved challenging. Of the mere 25 beds in the county, GenerateHope has eight.
“We have nowhere near enough beds,” Munsey said. “I turn away 10 to 20 women each month. That is just the hardest part of my job. . The funding is not there.”
And none of those 25 beds is for juvenile victims. If they don’t have family to go back to, they can be sent to Juvenile Hall or put in group homes or foster care — places that make them especially vulnerable to further recruitment.
Investigations have also become trickier as traffickers adapt.
“It’s a constantly changing playing field,” Rice said. “Once we get a successful method, there seems to be a shift.” For instance, he said some sex trafficking websites are using the hard-to-track Bitcoin as currency now instead of cash.
Another surprising factor that may play a role is race.
While the majority of gang-related sex trafficking cases being prosecuted in the county are of black gangs, the study found that Hispanic and white gangs are equally involved. This information was learned through nearly 160 interviews with gang-affiliated people in prison for various crimes, said one of the study’s authors, Carpenter.
“Black gangs are very outspoken and flashy about their pimping identity,” she said, noting how the lifestyle is glamorized in pop culture and rap music, and openly boasted about on social media.
She said Hispanic and white gangs admitted to the same behavior, only they conducted it more under the cloak of darkness, for different reasons.
“Hispanic guys reject that label pimp. They say we are their protectors, bodyguards. They are contracted by women to drive them around,” Carpenter said.
“The Mexican Mafia does not formally approve of prostitution, and a lot of guys we talked to have to keep it on the down-low because they don’t want to have a hit out on them, or if they start making too much money at it they start getting taxed,” she said. “They’re not Facebooking this stuff.”
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