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Human trafficking in the form of sexual slavery is a real problem in our country, one that the federal government is fighting hard to dismantle.

The ability of traffickers to sell their victims for sex on the internet has caused this problem to proliferate. Federal investigative and prosecutorial efforts have increased dramatically in recent years.

For example, in 2009, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania initiated a sex-trafficking working group with the FBI and the Philadelphia Police Department, leading to an exponential increase in the number of federal investigations in our district.

We have federally prosecuted dozens of trafficking ventures (and individual traffickers) in Philadelphia and the eight other counties within our district operating on the internet, in area hotels and in residential properties.

Federal judges have imposed sentences in the range of 30 years to life imprisonment, with no possibility of parole.

For example, Kevino Graham was sentenced to 100 years for running a brothel in Philadelphia and subjecting three young women to sadistic sexual violence. Christian Womack was sentenced to life in prison for trafficking a teenager in multiple states as well as the attempted trafficking of other young women. Corderro Cody was sentenced to 30 years for the sex trafficking of minors and adults.

Last year we joined a task force that includes the Philadelphia Police Department, the Salvation Army, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which is working to identify and prosecute targets, provide essential services to victims and educate both law enforcement and the public.

My office’s human trafficking coordinator, has engaged the community, high school students, law enforcement officers, judges, and nonprofit organizations in providing ongoing education and awareness.

Change is afoot.

The avoidable tragedy in the current landscape is the common misperception of what the crime actually is.

Most people engaging in prostitution in our district are doing it against their will, for another person’s exclusive profit. Most are American citizens of color, a vast portion of whom are juvenile females, recruited in their neighborhoods, in public transit stations, outside school, or on social media, by “Romeo pimps” posing as would-be boyfriends. Most were recruited drug-free, and introduced to serious drugs by their traffickers as a means of coercion.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s new policy of normalizing prostitution, most significantly by not adequately penalizing or even charging the buyers, sends the wrong message to our community — that local prosecutors do not view trafficking as serious enough to do everything possible to stop it (or, to put it more bluntly, do not view it as a problem at all).

Until we stop pretending that prostitution is engaged in only by consenting adults as some sort of lifestyle choice, we will be crippling ourselves in our ability to combat this problem. And more young victims will continue to suffer.

Most people engaging in prostitution in our district are doing it against their will, for another person’s exclusive profit

William M. McSwain,is the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS).

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