Child Sex Trafficking Prosecutions Fall During Trump Administration

The latest available case-by-case federal government records show that in September 2020 federal prosecutors brought criminal charges against eleven (11) individuals for child sex traf­ficking under 18 USC 1591. Altogether in FY 2020, the federal government reports 180 new prosecutions where child sex trafficking was the lead charge. This is about the same number of criminal prosecutions as last year where there were 178 such prosecutions.

The number of prosecutions for child sex trafficking has significantly declined during the Trump Administration, after climbing steadily during the Obama years. Prosecutions reached a peak of 273 and 277 in FY 2016 and FY 2017, respectively. Since then, the number of cases dipped to 221 in FY 2018, and then continued to decline to less than 200 in FYs 2019 and 2020. See Figure 1. (See also Table 1 at the end of the report.)

Figure 1: Federal Criminal Prosecutions for Child Sex Trafficking (18 USC 1591),
by Fiscal Years 2005-2020
(Click for larger image)

Criminal referrals to U.S. Attorney offices during this entire period are substantially larger than those federal prosecutors decide to file in court. Comparing the last three presidential admin­istrations, not only were the number of prosecutions higher during the Obama years, but the proportion of criminal referrals for child sex trafficking on which charges were brought was also higher. During the Bush Administration, 46 percent of criminal referrals were prosecuted. During the Obama Administration, that proportion increased to 49 percent. During the Trump Administration, prosecutors chose to file charges in 43 percent of cases—a notable decline from both the Obama and Bush years. See Figure 2.

Federal prosecutors have discretion to decide which referrals they accept and take to court. Documented in government records are the reasons prosecutors list for turning down referrals the office received. About two-thirds of the time, the reason given for declining to prosecute child sex trafficking cases in FY 2020 was that there was insufficient evidence. Other cases were declined citing the need to prioritize federal resources and interests. Prosecutions also did not occur when the matter was referred to another district, or because alternatives to federal prosecution were deemed more appropriate.

Figure 2: Percent of Child Sex Trafficking Referrals on Which Criminal Charges Were Filed in Federal Court,
by Presidential Administration
(Click for larger image)

Unlike many other types of crimes, the pandemic has not appeared to materially reduce prosecutions of child sex trafficking matters. Given the relatively small number of prosecutions in most months before the pandemic struck, considerable month-to-month variation already occurred. In April and May of 2020, at the height of pandemic-induced government office closures, the number of cases was lower than other months, with just five or six cases prosecuted. Yet, the lower than average number of cases in May 2020 is equivalent to the number of cases in May 2019, when there was no pandemic. In fact, March 2020, the first month the pandemic began driving down other federal criminal prosecutions, saw a higher than average number of child sex trafficking matters prosecuted, with charges filed against 19 defendants. See Figure 3.

Figure 3: Federal Criminal Child Sex Trafficking Prosecutions by Month,
FY 2019 vs FY 2020
(Click for larger image)
Fiscal Year Number of Prosecutions Number Not Prosecuted Percent Prosecuted
2005 41 13 76%
2006 31 33 48%
2007 47 48 49%
2008 35 84 29%
2009 85 70 55%
2010 87 89 49%
2011 113 113 50%
2012 138 126 52%
2013 203 209 49%
2014 239 255 48%
2015 211 232 48%
2016 273 289 49%
2017 277 323 46%
2018 221 302 42%
2019 178 305 37%
2020 180 200 47%
Table 1: Federal Child Sex Trafficking Referrals with Lead Charge 18 USC 1591,
FY 2005 - FY 2020
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