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Why is Milwaukee a Hub of Human Trafficking?


The Human Trafficking Institute recently ranked Wisconsin as sixth in the nation for human trafficking cases. This report is just the latest in a long line of studies that determined that the Badger State, and Milwaukee in particular, is a hotspot of human trafficking.

As defined in federal law by the Victims of Trafficking Protection Act of 2000, human trafficking involves either sex trafficking—a commercial sex act that is obtained through force, fraud or coercion—or forced labor obtained through similar means. Human trafficking is classified as a felony carries a maximum sentence of 15 years plus 10 years of extended supervision. Trafficking a child carries a maximum sentence of 25 years.

“One of the challenges when attempting to quantify the prevalence of human trafficking is that there is more than one definition of human trafficking at play in the criminal justice system. There are federal offenses of human trafficking, state human trafficking offenses, and elements of both that fit additional offense definitions,” reports the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DoJ). Wisconsin law offers a broader definition of human trafficking than federal law.

Another problem is recognizing what is or isn’t human trafficking. For many people, the concept of human trafficking is limited to a Hollywoodized concept. “People imagine it’s either something that only hits poor marginalized people, or it’s someone getting kidnapped off the streets and flown to other countries, but that’s definitely not the case,” says Kate Knowlton, executive director of Milwaukee’s LOTUS Legal Clinic, which offers free legal services to victims of trafficking.

“We don’t want to believe that sex trafficking happens by people who know that kid or are supposed to love that kid, but you’ve got trafficking inside of families. It happens inside Girl Scout troops and inside church communities,” Knowlton continues. “It happens in plain sight because there are vulnerabilities that are exploited by people in positions of authority and trust.”

Human trafficking can look like women openly selling their bodies, but it can also look like a school kid being manipulated by an upperclassman or a young girl under the control of an older relative. Most victims are not kidnapped and forcefully brought out of their homes, but they are taken advantage of for the perpetrator’s profit. “The average age for a child—this is a national statistic, but it is anecdotally pretty consistent with Milwaukee—is about 11 to 13 when they get involved in trafficking,” explains Erin Karshen, Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney and team captain of the Sensitive Crimes Unit. “Some victims don’t see it as trafficking, they don’t think that they’re being trafficked.”

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The Magnitude of the Problem

Officially, the Milwaukee District Attorney’s office gets “between 40 and 50 referrals per year” and charges “more than half of them,” according to Karshen. Additionally, federal prosecutors handled 17 active criminal human trafficking cases in Wisconsin in 2019.

In what might be the most comprehensive look at human trafficking data yet—although it is limited to minor and young adult victims—the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission identified 340 individuals confirmed or believed to have been victims of trafficking in Milwaukee from 2013 to 2016. Over that four-year period, on average, one victim of human trafficking, aged 25 or younger, was found in Milwaukee every four days. This doesn’t include older victims or victims that were not identified, meaning that the real number is realistically much higher.

“Human trafficking beat out weapons trade in terms of the top three international criminal activities,” Knowlton notes. “It used to be, in order, drugs, guns and people, but it’s now: drugs, people and guns. Unlike drugs and guns, people are reusable commodities, so your supply is kind of renewable, despicable as it is.”

The vast majority of sex trafficking victims in Milwaukee are women (97% of confirmed cases with demographic information in 2013-2016). Additionally, 65% are black, and 86% interacted with the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) for another incident like sexual assault, domestic violence, drug crimes or missing reports. A geographical look at human trafficking shows that, among youths trafficked in Milwaukee, 97% were known to last reside in Wisconsin, and 88% lived in the City of Milwaukee itself. In Milwaukee, a majority of the identified victims were trafficked in just six zip codes, including 53206, which has more than 95% of black residents.

Black and Hispanic neighborhoods have a higher number of trafficked residents. However, that is not to say that only these areas are at risk: The study identified that certain areas “have characteristics that allow trafficking to flourish.” For instance, the zip code 53207 had a cluster of cases where the victims were trafficked away from their area of residence. The researchers offer the explanation that “proximity to the airport and I-94 make it easy to get in and out of these neighborhoods.”

“Human trafficking happens in all 72 of Wisconsin counties,” Karshen says. “It happens all over the United States, whether people want to admit it or not, but Milwaukee is absolutely a hotspot for human trafficking. That is based on two things, in my opinion: One is the geographical location; we’re 90 miles from Chicago, or two hours from the Dells, and once you go to the Dells, you can go right to Minneapolis and then to North Dakota. That is kind of a super-highway for human trafficking because there are a lot of people working there away from their families. The second part is that human trafficking is something that has just been around for so long that it is embedded in our community.”

Continued Next Month

In the December edition of the Shepherd Express magazine, find out what we can do about human trafficking.

Jean-Gabriel Fernandez is a French journalist and graduate from La Sorbonne University. He writes about politics, cannabis and Milwaukee’s rich culture.

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