Backpage.com: "A tool pornographers and traffickers are using to exploit minors."
Sex trafficking has spread well beyond impoverished pockets of large cities to wealthy suburbs and rural small towns, federal prosecutors told a room full of students Thursday at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
"Some (victims and traffickers) are from wealthy suburbs and some are living in poverty without electricity and running water in the home," Jonathan Skrmetti, an assistant U.S. attorney in Memphis, told the crowd during a panel discussion attended by about two dozen U.S. attorneys from California to New York.
"We have an 18-year-old white trafficker who didn't weigh more than a hundred pounds, but she was beating the crap out of the victims and threatening to kill them," said Skrmetti, who has been prosecuting human trafficking cases in Memphis since 2006.
U.S. Atty. Ed Stanton of Memphis, and U.S. Atty. Steven Dettelbach of Cleveland, Ohio, moderated the discussion, one of several events — including a speech by U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder — commemorating the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Ole Miss.
Dettelbach praised Stanton's trafficking prosecution team as one of the model programs in the country.
Prosecutors from Memphis, Boston, Detroit and Miami detailed troubling cases occurring at a pace they can't contain in their jurisdictions.
Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general over the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, encouraged the law students to consider joining the fight as the next generation of prosecutors: "I hope you will be bitten by the bug," he said.
Skrmetti described how working with local law enforcement agencies to bring cases to federal court allows for heftier prison sentences with no parole. "We're seeing twenty-plus years," he said of federal sentences, pointing to one case where a menacing pimp received 50 years. "There's a real opportunity to get bad people off the streets and to help people who desperately need help."
Several prosecutors pointed to the Internet — particularly the "adult services" section of the popular website Backpage.com — as a tool pornographers and traffickers are using to exploit minors.
Steve Parker, supervisor of the U.S. attorney's civil rights unit in Memphis, briefly sounded like a fiery preacher: "It has caused an explosion in child prostitution," he said in a booming voice.
"We're swamped with juvenile sex trafficking cases from Backpage," Parker said.
Pimps can't put minors out on area streets to lure in customers, he said, but the Internet "helps conceal the crime."
U.S. Atty. Joyce White Vance of Birmingham said her team has prosecuted 35 sex-trafficking or child pornography cases this year.
"It's an epidemic," she said. "These cases are devastating for the victims and difficult but rewarding to the prosecutors."
Trafficking cases can be difficult to prosecute because pimps convince victims they will be charged with prostitution or deported.
Several in the crowd audibly gasped when Memphis prosecutors described how one victim who had just turned age 18 was lured from East Tennessee to Memphis, where she was raped, beaten and forced into prostitution under threat of decapitation with an ax.
One Memphis victim, who was being brought to the courthouse to testify, hopped out of a law enforcement van and disappeared.
"She ran out into the pouring rain and into the woods," Skrmetti said. "These cases live and die with the victim. If you don't have a victim on board, you don't really have a trafficking case."