Why is NJ seeing an increase in human trafficking reports?
New Jersey gets plenty of love and attention for its location.
But it's that location — between the New York metropolitan area and the metro region of Philadelphia, Baltimore and the nation's capital — that also attracts some of the most malicious crimes on the books, like sexual slavery.
In the first six months of 2018 alone, the National Human Trafficking Hotline handled 98 reports out of the Garden State. Nearly 84% of the New Jersey calls received by the hotline from January through June last year involved instances of sex trafficking.
From 2012 to 2016, the number of calls to the hotline jumped from 73 yearly to 195. The number of calls hit as high as 569 in 2014. In all of 2017, 417 calls touched on 161 human trafficking cases, according to the hotline's statistics.
"New Jersey is a hub," said Keyla Munoz, victim specialist for the Federal Bureau of Investigations. "It exists because there is a demand."
Data from the state show the problem is essentially nonexistent in some parts of the state, but quite prevalent in others. In a conversation with New Jersey 101.5, the FBI referred to Atlantic City a "prime hot spot" for human trafficking, which can also include forced labor.
From 2005, the year New Jersey's human trafficking law took effect, through Dec. 20, 2018, Atlantic County recorded a state-high 24 human trafficking complaints, and 14 indictments or accusations, according to the state Attorney General's Office. Bergen and Essex counties each saw 20 complaints over that time. Of the 147 complaints statewide, there were none out of Hunterdon, Monmouth, Salem, Sussex or Warren counties.
A total of 85 defendants were charged with human trafficking from 2013 to 2017, according to the state's figures. From 2014 to 2017, 16 defendants were charged with facilitation of human trafficking.
Supervisory Special Agent Jonathan Norbut, with the Newark field office of the FBI, said their tracking of the crime is fairly consistent with the numbers presented by the national hotline.
Increased reporting, however, doesn't necessarily reflect increased activity.
"That's in large part due to the increased awareness of the threat, based on public awareness campaigns," Norbut said.
Stricter punishments for traffickers, and better services for victims, also make victims more likely to come forward, Munoz added.
In many cases, the FBI said, victims are "groomed" by the subject, or trafficker, who preys on one's vulnerabilities, such as homelessness or family dysfunction.
"It appears casual to the victim, but it's very targeted and methodical on the part of the trafficker," Norbut said.
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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at firstname.lastname@example.org.