It was 11 PM on a Tuesday. I was working as the on-call prosecutor on the overnight shift and was called out to a scene by police officers who had conducted an undercover sting. They had just detained two girls who had solicited them for sex.

The officers had arrested one girl who had just turned 18. The other girl was under 18—she wasn’t arrested because we had a policy not to charge minors with prostitution. I let the officers know that they needed to contact child welfare about the minor and that a dependency matter would be initiated.

The 18-year-old was arrested, booked, and charged with prostitution and drug possession.

The next day, I came to work and made a few phone calls. I wanted to make sure that our office understood both girls—even the 18-year-old “adult”—were commercially sexually exploited and could be victims of human trafficking. Working with the defense attorney and victim services, we were able to resolve the cases so no one had a conviction and both girls got the resources and services they needed.

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Trafficked and exploited women and girls intersect with systems in ways we don’t think of.

Often traffickers use methods of coercion and control that don’t leave physical marks and are not immediately apparent to investigators or prosecutors. The common misconception that “we don’t have human trafficking in our jurisdiction” leads many criminal justice system professionals to fail to recognize common indicators of trafficking and/or exploitation—but it thrives in urban, suburban, and rural areas across the country.

Women in the sex trade are subject to severe violence.

Between two-thirds and one hundred percent of all women involved in the sex trade experience physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of traffickers or customers.

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Exploited women often have criminal records.

Their criminality is fueled by their exploitation. The dynamics that lead women to enter and remain in the Life, including violence, trauma, substance use, and poverty, may prompt them to commit theft, drug-related offenses, and other crimes. Criminal records follow survivors throughout their lives, limiting their ability to obtain employment, education, and housing—the very opportunities that would enable them to exit the Life. The roadblocks are greatest for Black women, women of color, and trans women, who are arrested for prostitution and related offenses at disproportionate rates.

Identification of survivors can be a critical turning point.

Some survivors actively seek out the justice system’s intervention. Many others intersect with the system as victims, witnesses, or as defendants charged with a crime. By recognizing survivors as survivors—however they come into contact with the system—prosecutors, law enforcement, and allied professionals can help end trafficking and exploitation. They can direct survivors to resources that provide exit ramps from exploitation. And they can close on ramps by identifying women who are vulnerable and directing them to the support they need.

Prosecutors need to lead the way

Of all actors in the criminal justice field, prosecutors have the most influence over the system’s response to a survivor. They decide whether and how to pursue charges. They have the power to offer plea deals and recommend sentences. A prosecutor’s actions can end the cycle of exploitation—or they can perpetuate it.

Prosecutors are more than public officials who institute criminal proceedings. They are agents for change and advocates for their communities. By identifying marginalized women and girls who are victims, making fair charging decisions, facilitating criminal record relief for survivors, and connecting women and girls with services and support, prosecutors can clear the way to a different life path.

About the Initiative

Just Exits is closing on ramps to and building off ramps from exploitation in four central ways:

Square 1

Educating prosecutors and law enforcement about how exploiters coerce, manipulate, brainwash, and force victims to engage in illegal activity

Square 2

Supporting prosecutors in their efforts to identify wrongful arrests and charges and to remedy wrongful convictions of exploited persons

  • Implementation of a new, model response to sexually exploited women and girls in three pilot jurisdictions
  • Customized, private training for prosecutors and allied professionals
  • Tailored support on case-specific and office-level issues
Square 3

Collaborating with communities to ensure that survivors can access services that offer meaningful life opportunities

  • Helping prosecutors’ offices expand and strengthen their relationships with local, regional, and national service providers
Square 4

Measuring meaningful prosecution outcomes to ensure a just response

  • Development and implementation of a performance management system to give prosecutors the tools to identify trends in outcomes, monitor the implementation of best practices, and make data-driven and research-informed decisions


Human Trafficking

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of people through force, fraud, or coercion, with the aim of exploiting them for profit. When victims are minors, force, fraud, or coercion is not required. Some states have also removed the requirement of force, fraud, or coercion from their statutes.


When a vulnerable person is deceived, coerced, or forced to take part in non-consensual sexual activity for the purpose of the exploiter's sexual gratification, financial gain, personal benefit or advantage, or any other non-legitimate purpose.

The Life

The subculture of the sex industry, complete with rules, a hierarchy of authority, and language. Women and girls will say they've been in the life if they've been involved in prostitution.