Recent high-profile cases against financier Jeffrey Epstein and R&B singer R. Kelly forced the nation to confront the sordid reality of child sex trafficking. Many have asked: How rampant are sexual predators?
The answer is that good data is hard to come by. Though estimates vary wildly, there's one consistent measurement.
Prosecutions for sex trafficking of children are on track to be 27 percent lower than last year, according to an analysis of the latest Justice Department figures by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).
The federal government reported 108 new child sex-trafficking cases in the first eight months of fiscal 2019, which began in October. At the current pace, such prosecutions will fall well short of the 221 filed in 2018 and even further — a 32 percent drop — from the 239 in 2014. The number of defendants included in each prosecution did not factor into the TRAC report.
Amid the nationwide slump in enforcement is South Florida, which is in a three-way tie for fourth place in the number of such prosecutions nationally. So far in 2019, South Florida has registered five child sex-trafficking prosecutions, placing it just short of Texas' north judicial district, which had six, and also behind New York's and Texas' southern districts, which had eight each.
Such a high ranking for South Florida comes as a surprise given the district's controversial history with Epstein. In 2008, the alleged billionaire pleaded guilty to paying a teenaged girl for sexual favors. Former Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who was then a U.S. attorney in Florida, helped offer Epstein a sweetheart nonprosecution agreement that allowed him to work out of his office six days a week during his 13-month jail sentence.
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"It’s good news hands down when perpetrators are prosecuted — pimps, daddies, traffickers, as well as the people buying sex," says Kathy Anderson, executive director of the Women's Fund Miami-Dade. "Our collective focus is increasing prosecutions across the board to target trafficking."
According to the office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Florida ranks number three in the nation for human trafficking, which encompasses sex trafficking of adults and minors as well as labor trafficking.
Prosecution rates can often indicate an administration's priorities when it comes to law enforcement. Under President Barack Obama, the numbers suggest that federal prosecutors made a point of going after child sex traffickers, leading to a spike in case filings. Prosecutions jumped from 85 in 2009 to roughly 270 in 2016. They remained constant during the Trump administration's first year but have dipped in the two years since. (Criminal federal prosecutions overall have increased significantly since 2016.)
According to the TRAC report, government attorneys have chosen to prosecute only 39 percent of child sex-trafficking cases referred to them so far in 2019. In the last full year of the Obama administration, prosecutors jumped on almost 50 percent of such referrals.