R. Kelly Convicted, but Prevention of Human Trafficking Demands More | Opinion

Guilty of sex trafficking. It is what singer R. Kelly deserved. While the result was a positive, long-overdue step, we also need to recognize that we're not going to prosecute our way out of human trafficking.

Each successful prosecution in the fight against human trafficking also reflects a failure to prevent harm, as the powerful voices of trafficking survivors keep reminding us. In other words, law enforcement is necessary but not sufficient. Yet as a country, we continue to over-rely on the criminal justice model to stop human trafficking.

As a result, more than 20 years after the federal government adopted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act—the cornerstone of U.S. anti-trafficking law—we find ourselves largely stuck in an endless cycle of seeking to arrest perpetrators and assist survivors. We must prosecute traffickers, and we must do much more to support survivors. But what is also missing is a coordinated effort to prevent human trafficking, in all its forms.

Preventing human trafficking is a complex challenge. It demands attention to systemic issues and the root causes of the problem. It requires addressing why some people are more vulnerable than others and confronting who is creating the demand for the goods and services produced by exploited individuals.

A public health approach can help answer these questions and move us closer to preventing human trafficking. Foremost, public health frameworks are oriented toward prevention. For example, success in the world of public health means preventing a disease outbreak, rather than just pursuing accountability after an outbreak occurs. This prevention emphasis is desperately needed with human trafficking.

Singer R. Kelly appears during a hearing
Singer R. Kelly appears during a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on Sept. 17, 2019, in Chicago, Ill. Antonio Perez - Pool via Getty Images

Second, public health doesn't simply focus on the individual. Drawing on the socio-ecological model and relying on evidence-based research, public health campaigns seek to identify and address individual, relationship, community and societal level risk factors, to reduce the risk of harmful outcomes. In the trafficking context, that means addressing not only individual factors that heighten vulnerability such as a history of child maltreatment or homelessness, but also abusive relationships, unsafe schools and fractured neighborhoods and societal views and practices that marginalize and devalue certain people. We must confront all these factors.

A public health approach also includes measures aimed at identifying and addressing the underlying attitudes and behaviors that lead to adverse health outcomes. And right now, harmful attitudes and practices are sustaining human trafficking and related forms of exploitation. To make progress on human trafficking will require tackling big issues. We are a society that criminalizes sexual exploitation of minors, but we continue to tolerate and sometimes promote the sexualization of children, especially girls, in popular culture. We have civil rights laws that proclaim equality, yet we live in a world in which people of color, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ+ individuals, persons with disabilities and others experience discrimination. We express disgust at sex trafficking and cases like that of R. Kelly, yet we largely ignore labor trafficking, even though essentially all of us contribute to the demand for it. Consumer demand for cheap goods and services, and corporations' desire to increasingly maximize profits, drive exploitation in supply chains. All these issues and others must be confronted.

Prevention is a huge challenge, but if it sounds overwhelming keep in mind that human trafficking is a phenomenon created entirely by human beings. It's a complex problem. But if we created it, we can solve it.

The first step is to make a genuine commitment to prevention. Real progress—a reduction in prevalence of human trafficking—requires that we move upstream to confront the root causes of the problem. Public health strategies and methods have the potential to do that and to help build the comprehensive response needed to address these harms before they occur.

Jonathan Todres, distinguished university professor and professor of law at Georgia State University, is co-author of Preventing Child Trafficking: A Public Health Approach (Johns Hopkins University Press).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.