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Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez testifies at Senate hearing on sex trafficking

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WASHINGTON--Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez testified Wednesday at a Senate Judiciary panel hearing on titled "In Our Own Backyard: Child Prostitution and Sex Trafficking in the United States"

There is "no more heart breaking problem than the sexual exploitation of children," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the panel.

Alvarez highlighted a new approach her office is taking on human trafficking crimes.

She told the panel, "I created an Organized Crime / Human Trafficking initiative last July as part of the Special Prosecutions Bureau within my office. Along with our
law enforcement partners, both state and federal, my human trafficking prosecutors have been conducting long-term, proactive investigations into these organized crime targets. Suffice to say, this covert work is proving fruitful, even though I cannot, of course discuss any details of these pending investigations.

Additionally, I have taken advantage of the size of my office - the second largest in the nation - and developed new methods for collection and centralization of intelligence regarding human trafficking offenders. Given the daily interaction between local law enforcement and those forced to work in the sex industry, crucial leads arise on a recurring basis within the various parts of my office, including misdemeanor cases, domestic violence, auto theft, sex crimes, felony review, cold case murder and financial crimes and public corruption.

PREPARED TESTIMONY OF COOK COUNTY STATE'S ATTORNEY ANITA ALVAREZ
SENATE JUDICIARY SUBCOMMITTEE ON HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE LAW
FEBRUARY 24, 2010

Thank you Senator Durbin and members of the Committee for inviting me to be
here with you today to discuss this extremely important issue.

As all of you know, human trafficking is an increasing problem in the United
States and the sex trade is one of the most lucrative areas of the trafficking
industry. Over the years, criminal enterprises have made a fortune in my county
and in states across the nation exploiting women and children and destroying
lives and communities in the process.

Last year the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority funded a study of
young women involved in the sex trade industry in the Chicago area. Seventy-
three percent of participants surveyed reported that they had started in the sex
trade before the age of 18. Almost one-third of those surveyed stated that the
reason they started in the sex trade industry was because they owed the
individual who had recruited them because of the provision of food, clothing or
gifts.

One survey respondent related that she turned to prostitution as a freshman in
high school and that she would turn tricks after school because her mother was
addicted to drugs and she needed the money to buy food and clothing. In a
prostitution case that my office handled recently, one juvenile related that she
did not wish to pursue criminal charges against her pimp because, and I quote,
"He gets me a Subway sandwich whenever I want one."
It's clear that when vulnerable young women are equating the trade of sex for
a deli sandwich, we all must realize the agonizing human toll this problem is
taking on our young generation and potentially generations to come. These
juveniles are engaging in "survival sex," ---- exchanging sex for food, clothing or a safe place to sleep.

Cases such as this also demonstrate the challenges that we face on the local level in prosecuting juvenile prostitution and sex crimes.

First and foremost --- from the perspective of the criminal offender --- the
economic gain of child prostitution or trafficking greatly outweighs the risks.
There is very low overhead in terms of cost for offenders and this crime is rarely
detected because it is difficult for law enforcement to identify minors engaged
in juvenile prostitution or trafficking.

Another challenge that law enforcement faces in prosecuting these cases is
that most children will not self identify or cooperate with police and they identify
with their pimp or purveyor as someone who they rely on and even love. They
are typically young girls from troubled backgrounds who have been sexually
victimized, have low self esteem and essentially a total lack of options in their
lives.

All of which makes this crime a potential "perfect storm" for street gangs or
other organized crime entities.

As a career prosecutor who has tried countless gang-related homicide cases
that have occurred on the streets of Chicago, I understand fully the nature,
scope and influence of street gangs. They are increasingly sophisticated and
profit oriented and human trafficking fits well into their criminal repertoire. In
addition to being able to intimidate the victim and her family, the gang
member can also control the victim through sex and drugs.

An extremely disturbing example of this occurred in the state of Illinois in an
investigation that originated out of Ottawa, Illinois, in LaSalle County. The
LaSalle County State's Attorney tried and convicted four people in 2008 on
criminal drug conspiracy charges in connection with a gang controlled heroin
and crack cocaine distribution ring that was operating between Chicago and
the LaSalle - Peru area in our state.

My office assisted in the investigation and helped to prepare the conspiracy
indictment as well as the search warrant executed at a Chicago home where
the drugs were being cooked, cut and prepared for distribution. In this
particular case the gang leaders were using 17 and 18 year old girls to "body
pack" the narcotics for smuggling from Chicago to LaSalle County. During the
course of their involvement the girls became addicted to heroin and were
videotaped having sex with the gang leaders. In a particularly disturbing and
chilling video seized in the investigation, one of the gang leaders is shown
removing a bag of heroin from the vagina of one of the teenaged victims.

When it comes to prosecuting child prostitution, my office, in practice, does not
charge juveniles who are arrested on prostitution-related charges. We
understand this child is not a criminal but rather a victim who needs support,
services and a safe future.

All too often, making them safe has proved to be
particularly challenging because, in the past, the traditional prosecution of
juvenile sex trafficking was reactive and far too dependent upon victim
testimony.

As a career prosecutor and a newly elected State's Attorney, it has occurred to
me that the traditional approach we have taken with juvenile prostitution has
simply not been effective on many levels. We are not convicting the organized
groups of individuals who are perpetuating this industry and - even more
importantly - we are not able to effectively offer the services that these young
women need to help them, keep them safe, and empower them to leave the
sex trade industry once and for all. It seems to me that the premise of removing
one child from the situation only to have another step in and fill her place is not
a good one.

With this in mind, I created an Organized Crime / Human Trafficking initiative last
July as part of the Special Prosecutions Bureau within my office. Along with our
law enforcement partners, both state and federal, my human trafficking
prosecutors have been conducting long-term, proactive investigations into
these organized crime targets. Suffice to say, this covert work is proving fruitful,
even though I cannot, of course discuss any details of these pending
investigations.

Additionally, I have taken advantage of the size of my office - the second
largest in the nation - and developed new methods for collection and
centralization of intelligence regarding human trafficking offenders. Given the
daily interaction between local law enforcement and those forced to work in
the sex industry, crucial leads arise on a recurring basis within the various parts of
my office, including misdemeanor cases, domestic violence, auto theft, sex
crimes, felony review, cold case murder and financial crimes and public
corruption. In many cases, the defendants or victims in simple sexual assault or
domestic violence cases possess key information concerning human trafficking
operations. Under my HT initiative, we are now working to develop and funnel
this intelligence to a dedicated team of prosecutors, allowing us to "connect
the dots" and focus our resources in the right direction.

As part of this coordinated approach against human trafficking, my prosecutors
have also continued to work with the Chicago Police Department and other
agencies to reorganize the regional HT task force and specifically train officers
working "vice" to identify and investigate human trafficking - especially those
operations involving the exploitation of children. With the assistance of Chicago
Police, these ongoing efforts will not only view prostituted children as victims,
rather than criminal defendants, but also hold accountable the individuals and
groups truly responsible for these horrific offenses.
Equally as important, my human trafficking team is building direct coalitions with
social service providers and other NGO's, thus enabling such groups to assist
police during HT takedowns and share their investigative leads with law
enforcement. With due regard for client confidentiality and consent, we are
fostering the lines of communication necessary for social service providers to
share their information with us, not just about human traffickers, but also
concerning potentially corrupt public officials who protect them and their
operations.
Since the formation of this initiative, this networking plan has cast a wide net,
including simple things, such as attending breakfast meetings, to participation in
more formal events, such as the launch of the "End Demand Campaign of the
Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation," as well as the recent human
trafficking summit held in San Francisco last November by the U.S. Justice
Department, "Building Collaboration to Address Human Trafficking in Domestic
Violence and Sexual Assault Cases."
Through our HT initiative, my office has also been able to share our expertise and
our NGO connections with federal agencies, including the Department of
Homeland Security, I.C.E., and the U.S. Attorney's Office. In one very recent
case, we helped to provide information that was instrumental in having a
human trafficking offender detained pending trial in a federal case, and further
helped agents connect victims with temporary housing and social services.
I doubt anyone here would be surprised to hear that our greatest setback to
date has not been a lack of vision or resolve, but rather a lack of funding. Due
to severe financial cutbacks on the county level, our HT initiative currently lacks
the scale needed for true success. As such, we have been and will continue to
pursue new sources of funding.
Our social service partners face the same challenges as we do when it comes
to funding but we all clearly understand and see the need for safe and long-
term shelter, therapeutic intervention and educational development.
Prosecutors cannot solve this problem in isolation and it is my intention to
continue to work in partnership so that we can achieve success together. I think
it is clear to all of us at the local, state and federal levels that this problem is vast
and the need is immediate. Nevertheless, I remain optimistic and I believe we
are on the right track and turning a corner in our efforts to meet these
challenges head-on.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on February 25, 2010 2:16 PM.

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