Human Trafficking in the United States: A Criminal Market Analysis

Jay S. Albanese, National Institute of Justice
Jennifer Schrock Donnelly, National Institute of Justice

It may seem callous to view human trafficking from an economic perspective. Victims of trafficking often suffer horribly, both physically and mentally, at the hands of their traffickers. However, the unfortunate reality is that the foremost goal of trafficking operations is to maximize profits -- in the same way that commercial enterprises do so in the legitimate economic sphere. The human trade is in many ways like any other international trade, except that it is illegal. Thus, in order to raise profit potential, traffickers mimic the operational structure of their legal counterparts. Like most other economic markets, it is largely driven by demand. And like any other trade, it is an enterpreneurial activity that requires organization and planning. This paper will examine the increasingly lucrative phenomenon of human trafficking in the United States from a market perspective -- based on the economic truths of supply and demand. Further, it will argue that approaching the problem as an economic, albeit clandestine, reality will enable a clearer understanding of its structure and operation. Ultimately, this can help tailor anti-trafficking strategies to deter, disrupt and dismantle trafficking networks by identifying the necessary and critical stages in their operation and making them vulnerable.

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Updated 05/20/2006