Prosecution of Sex Trafficking of Children is Down Nationwide

Table 1: Criminal Prosecutions
Number Year-to-date 108
Percent Change from previous year -26.7
Percent Change from 5 years ago -32.2
Percent Change from 10 years ago 90.6

Prosecutions for sex trafficking of children under a law used against financier Jeffrey Epstein last week are down 26.7 percent over the past fiscal year, according to the latest available data from the Justice Department.

During the first eight months of FY 2019 the government reported 108 new prosecutions for sex trafficking of children under Title 18 Section 1591. This is the chief statute federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan) used in the Epstein charges.

If the present pace of such prosecutions continues, the fiscal 2019 total will be 162, compared to 221 last year. According to the case-by-case records analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, this is the second year in a row such prosecutions have fallen, a reversal of the growth trend during the Obama years. (See Figure 1. Vertical bars represent the number of prosecutions of this type recorded each fiscal year. Projected figures for the current fiscal year are shown. Each presidential administration is distinguished by the color of the bars.)

Compared to five years ago, the estimate of FY 2019 prosecutions of this type is down 32.2 percent, from 239. However, prosecutions over the past year are still much higher than they were ten years ago, up 90.6 percent from the 85 reported in 2009. (See Table 1 above.) And overall federal prosecutions for all crimes are up significantly since 2016.

These comparisons are based on case-by-case information TRAC has obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the Justice Department's Executive Office for United States Attorneys.

Figure 1. Federal Prosecutions for Sex Trafficking of Children (18 USC 1591)
(Click for larger image)

Under longstanding law, every U.S. Attorney is appointed by the president and is a part of the Justice Department. But over the years, while the 94 federal prosecutors have generally followed broad administration enforcement policies, many have exercised considerable independence over which cases they decide to bring or not bring. Also influencing their actions are the kinds of matters state and federal enforcement agencies bring to them. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was the lead investigative agency for six out of ten prosecutions so far this fiscal year under this statute. Seven cases were referred by joint federal task forces that included state and local officials, usually teaming with Homeland Security or the FBI, or were referred by state and local authorities alone. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was recorded as the lead investigative agency on seven of these referrals. Health and Human Services and the State Department were each the lead referral agency on three referrals.

Prosecutors' exercise of discretionary authority can have a profound impact. Comparing the ways that the odds of prosecution vary over time can sometimes reveal what an administration is seeking to achieve in its criminal programs. When all referrals for federal prosecution for sex trafficking of children are examined, U.S. attorneys have generally turned down slightly more than half. In the last full year of the Obama Administration, federal prosecutors prosecuted 49 percent of these referrals. This percentage has been slipping since: during FY 2017 it was 46 percent and in FY 2018 it was 42 percent. So far in this fiscal year, Justice Department records show that the rate has fallen to 39 percent.

Top Ranked Judicial Districts

Understandably, there is great variation in the number of prosecutions in each of the nation's 94 federal judicial districts. The districts registering the largest number of prosecutions of this type during the first eight months of FY 2019 are shown in Table 2.

  • The Southern District of New York (Manhattan) and Southern District of Texas (Houston)—with 8 prosecutions each—were the most active through May 2019.

  • The Northern District of Texas (Fort Worth) was in third place.

Table 2. Top Ten Districts
Judicial District Count Rank
N. Y., S 8 1
Texas, S 8 1
Texas, N 6 3
Cal, S 5 4
Fla, S 5 4
Virg, E 5 4
D. C. 4 7
Ga, N 4 7
Maine 4 7
Mass 4 7
Mich, E 4 7
N. Y., W 4 7

TRAC offers free monthly reports on program categories such as white collar crime, immigration, drugs, weapons and terrorism and on selected government agencies such as the IRS, FBI, ATF and DHS. For the latest information on prosecutions and convictions, go to In addition, subscribers to the TRACFed data service can generate custom reports for a specific agency, judicial district, program category, lead charge or judge via the TRAC Data Interpreter.