By Jennifer Gentile Long, Chief Executive Officer

Survivor-centered justice isn’t a trendy motto to post on social media, or a term I add in an article or resource as an afterthought.

It is a deeply-held commitment that is inextricably tied to my very personal decision to dedicate my career to countering sexual violence, abuse, and exploitation. The voices of survivors have led me to where I am today.

Through volunteer opportunities, internships, and part-time jobs in college and law school, I had the immense privilege of learning from victims/survivors1 and child witnesses of domestic and sexual violence and exploitation. These survivors—some of whom were living in shelters or poverty—spoke often about the impact of violence on their day-to-day lives. They and their advocates provided insight into the far-reaching effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACE Factors) long before these were integrated into the public health and criminal justice lexicons. Survivors also described their encounters with the “good” and “bad” prosecutors they interacted with in the criminal justice system. Learning about the impact of the prosecutor, whose practices could heal or harm, inspired me to become one myself.

In the late 1990s, I served as an Assistant District Attorney in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit. It was there that I witnessed the intensity of the violence directed at sexually exploited women and girls. No matter how many cases I handled or victims I met, or how much evidence I reviewed, I was always jarred by the vicious, intentional violence and abuse hurled against sexually exploited women and girls. This abuse came not only from traffickers, but from defense attorneys who stigmatized and blamed survivors as the foundation of their case strategies. These attorneys argued that survivors weren't credible because they were involved in the sex trade. They insinuated and sometimes outright argued that sexually exploited women and girls weren't deserving of justice. In doing so, they justified and otherwise excused assailants at the expense of survivors' dignity and healing. Elevating survivors’ voices in the course of dismantling these unjust defenses was as much an honor as it was a duty.

When I look back at my time as a prosecutor, though, I am consumed by the countless survivors I missed when they needed to be seen. Most sexually exploited women and girls came into contact with us as defendants charged with crimes, but at the time we lacked the knowledge and the training we needed to recognize them as survivors. So instead of creating off ramps from sexual exploitation by connecting survivors with needed services, we reinforced on ramps into the Life2 by allowing survivors to cycle through the system unidentified, unsupported, and often criminalized for crimes committed under duress from their trafficker.

Over the last 25+ years, the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, increased federal funding and support for criminal justice professionals and service providers, and the implementation of new state laws have all led to increased public awareness of sexual exploitation and improved investigative and prosecutorial practices. Despite this progress, however, we have a long way left to go. Through the experiences of survivors, and the experiences of AEquitas’ staff assisting prosecutors in the field, we know sexually exploited women and girls continue to be misunderstood, criminalized, and pushed further into sexual exploitation rather than supported to exit the Life. Historically marginalized groups—including survivors who are Black and African American, Indigenous, Latin@, Asian, members of immigrant populations, or LGBTQ+ persons—are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and are least likely to receive justice. As Just Exits Advisory Council Member Shamere McKenzie noted in Assessing Culpability: Context Before Conviction:

In the last 20 years, we’ve come a long way in the anti-trafficking movement and in understanding trafficking. However, we are still struggling with understanding the complexity [of trafficking]. We want to accept [one] piece of trafficking but ignore [ ] other piece[s] of trafficking. If we are going to deal with this issue, we have to accept it as a whole. We can’t accept some pieces and reject other pieces.

Survivors of sexual exploitation intersect with the criminal justice system as victims of and witnesses to crime, as well as defendants arrested for, charged with, or previously convicted of crimes. While the criminal justice system, by itself, cannot end violence against sexually exploited women and girls—a pervasive epidemic with complex causes requiring multifaceted solutions —it is necessary for criminal justice partners to play a central role in community prevention and response.

Prosecutors are uniquely positioned to be leaders within the criminal justice system and in their communities. They have the ethical duty to achieve justice, which is unique to each and every case that comes across their desks. They have inherent discretion that allows them to determine which cases move forward and how cases resolve. Prosecutors have the responsibility and duty to remedy past wrongs through criminal record relief and conviction integrity efforts. And they have the capacity to amplify survivor voices, which deserve to be prominent in the criminal justice system.

In short, prosecutors have a unique opportunity to transform the system's response to human trafficking and sexually exploited women and girls, whether these survivors are initially identified as victims, witnesses, or defendants. The Just Exits Initiative was founded to support prosecutors in that mission. In partnership with members of the Just Exits Advisory Council, AEquitas focuses on providing prosecutors with training, mentorship, and support to ensure survivors who interact with the criminal justice system are given a viable path—a just exit—out of sexual exploitation.

I co-founded AEquitas in 2009 to support prosecutors with the tools they need to successfully respond to human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and the related crimes of sexual and intimate partner violence. To this day, AEquitas is the only national organization focused on providing prosecutors with training and support to address these cases. We are made up of former prosecutors who specialize in the response to gender-based violence and human trafficking. We know the ins and outs of the criminal justice system as well as the research on trafficking and exploitation, and we work with survivors who tell us what the research can't. We've developed and promoted victim-centered and trauma-informed practices, and we’ve done it in a way that can be measured so we can see the impact of our efforts. At the center of it all are survivors, whose determination and persistence in the face of unspeakable violence inspired us to become prosecutors in the first place. They deserve meaningful and comprehensive justice.

  1. 1. I recognize that survivors are more than their victimization; however, because the term "victim" can trigger legal protections and considerations, I use the terms survivor and victim interchangeably. ↩︎
  2. 2. The subculture of the sex industry, complete with rules, a hierarchy of authority, and language. ↩︎