How Kroc School Professor Ami Carpenter's Human Trafficking Report Findings Are Fueling Prevention Efforts

Ami Carpenter at computerKroc School Professor Ami Carpenter (left) reviews human trafficking research with her colleague. 

“Research can launch a movement if it's evidence-based and community-engaged.” — Ami Carpenter

Human trafficking, defined as the unlawful use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel a person into sexual exploitation, labor or services against their will, is a multibillion-dollar industry impacting tens of millions of people globally, including the United States. Often referred to as a form of modern-day slavery, human trafficking is a violation of fundamental human rights with profound negative impacts on individual trauma and societal health.

Ami Carpenter, an associate professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies (Kroc School) at the University of San Diego, says human trafficking is rooted in the same socio-economic inequality linked to other kinds of community violence, mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness. 

Carpenter began studying human trafficking over a decade ago. “Prior to 2010, my understanding of human trafficking was limited,” she says. She had been researching community violence prevention in Iraq and Guatemala since arriving at USD in 2008, but when she turned her focus to violence prevention efforts in San Diego, she started seeing a connection between gangs and commercial sexual exploitation.

“At the time, I wasn’t focused solely on human trafficking — I wanted to map gang activity in general,” Carpenter explains. “But when we produced GIS maps of crime incidence by gang territory, we could see that the majority of sex-trafficking arrests and citations occurred primarily in one area of the city, outside the established territories. It was basically a free-trade zone.” 

Later that year, Carpenter was invited to join a small group of police and sheriff’s detectives, social service providers, community members, educators, and victim advocates who wanted to coordinate and combine their approaches to increase impact. Carpenter did not consider herself a subject matter expert on human trafficking in 2009, “But I did understand that each person came to the table with strongly held and conflicting beliefs about what the problem was, and I believed I could help them build a shared understanding.” 

At Carpenter’s request, the Kroc School donated meeting space to the group, which met there every month. She says the Kroc School was a meaningful venue for the people engaged in this dialogue. “These were tough conversations, but I remember that people would sometimes invoke ‘where we are sitting’ to remind everyone that we’re all on the same side.” 

The group’s collaboration was successful, and it emerged 18 months later as the San Diego County Regional Human Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Advisory Council, its diverse participants now organized into eight subcommittees whose co-chairs met monthly in a Coordinating Committee. 

Carpenter, along with Dr. Jamie Gates of Point Loma Nazarene University, became a co-chair of the Data and Research Subcommittee. Summer Stephan had just been elected as the Chief Deputy District Attorney, and she chaired the monthly Coordinating Committee. She asked each Subcommittee to prioritize their top needs. “The other Subcommittees are practitioners,” Carpenter explains. “Data and Research are different — we understood that our mandate was to support the other committees’ work by researching things they needed to know. We asked, ‘What information does the County need that we don’t currently have?’ ” Stephan responded with an insight that inspired Carpenter and Gates to action:

“When you don’t have actual figures of the scope of a public safety threat as big as the trafficking of girls and women and young boys, then it’s very difficult to ask for the right resources and to get the right resources to attack this issue.” 

So, Carpenter and Gates authored a federal grant proposal to define the scope of human trafficking in San Diego. They used a Community Engaged Research (CEnR) design in partnership with law enforcement, victim advocates, schools, survivors, and community organizations. Carpenter stresses that the research would not have been possible without each sector’s participation. “The police shared arrest records, the sheriff's department accommodated our interviews in the jails, victim service organization shared intake data, and schools opened their doors.” In all, data was collected from nearly 1,200 individuals — 154 gang-affiliated persons and/or traffickers, 702 first-time prostitution offenders, 140 survivors from eight victim service programs and 141 county school administrators and staff — making it one of the largest, most comprehensive human-trafficking case studies in the United States to date.

Study Reveals the Scope of the Human Trafficking Problem in San Diego

The three-year study Measuring the Nature and Extent of Gang Involvement in Sex Trafficking in San Diegorevealed that San Diego’s underground sex economy generated $810 million annually, an amount far greater than initially thought. The number of victims falls between 3000-5000 people annually, with 16 being the average age of entry into child commercial sexual exploitation. Over 110 gangs are involved in facilitating sex trafficking in San Diego in addition to several trans-border criminal networks involved in trafficking minors and adults into the United States. Contrary to popular belief, however, 80 percent of victims are U.S. citizens and the number of trafficking facilitators (‘pimps’, drivers, ‘bodyguards’) are about evenly split between Caucasian, African American, and Mexican American men. In contrast to the stereotype of the black ‘pimp’, white men were statistically more likely to be traffickers. 

One of the study’s main findings was the high prevalence of trafficking recruitment and sexual exploitation at high schools.

One hundred percent of schools participating in the study reported incidences of confirmed or suspected sex trafficking happening on their campuses.

This was true in both high and low-income neighborhoods across the county. Carpenter points to USD as a case in point. “After I began teaching my own students about how traffickers recruit, several of them told me about men and women approaching them — in malls, at Mission Bay Park — in ways that sounded like classic recruitment,” Carpenter says. 

Carpenter’s Research Leads to New Laws, Better Education and Safer Communities

The results from Carpenter’s research have, indeed, been impactful. Following its publication, San Diego legislators used the study to put forward and pass state legislation, among them laws:

  • Mandating human trafficking prevention education in all middle and high schools in California (Assembly Bill 1227)
  • Requiring mandatory reporting of minor-age victims of commercial sexual exploitation
  • Imposing more severe repercussions for the buyers of sex (Assembly Bill 1708)
  • Extending foster care benefits to young victims of trafficking
  • Prohibiting minors from being charged for prostitution (SB 1322)
  • Requiring children contacted by Child Welfare Services and the county Probation Department to be screened for risk indicators of involvement in sex-trafficking
  • Allowing past victims of an accused trafficker to testify during trial to support the claims of the current victim, a right previously limited to victims of sex crimes and domestic violence
  • Removing (“vacating”) from victims’ criminal record non-violent offenses that were committed during the period they were being trafficked  

Collectively, these laws are more victim-centered and focus on early intervention, and reporting from the San Diego Union-Tribune suggests they have led to “steady progress”. 

Beyond new and improved laws, the study’s findings have led to local changes in policy and programs. County officials launched the “Ugly Truth”, a public awareness campaign that ran from June-August 2017. In those three months, the number of calls from San Diego to the National Human Trafficking hotline increased by 65 percent. Mayor Faulkner and City Council declared January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month in 2017; the County Board of Education adopted the same resolution in 2019. The study’s findings are embedded within every trafficking awareness training and school curriculum in San Diego. 

In fact, the study’s recommendation to mandate anti-trafficking education led to the creation of the United States’ first public-private-nonprofit partnership for trafficking prevention education. 

The San Diego Trafficking Prevention Collective brings together financial institutions, private investors, school districts, governmental officials and nonprofit organizations. With the goal to reach all 700+ schools in San Diego’s 43 school districts the San Diego Collective is working to compile findings and develop a “playbook” for other communities wishing to create a similar collective-based approach to fight trafficking.

Finally, according to USD’s media relations office, the study has generated more media citations than any previous piece of research produced at the university, suggesting it is acting as a springboard for further academic research.

While encouraged by these results, Carpenter recognizes there’s more work to be done. 

Next Steps for Human Trafficking Prevention at University of San Diego

Carpenter has been a leader in researching human trafficking in San Diego, but she believes that vital contributions can be made by colleagues in schools across USD’s campus. “Pediatric and emergency room nurses are frontline responders — they see trafficking victims every day. Business school students can learn how to look for human trafficking in supply chains. Sex trafficking is an online marketplace, and the School of Engineering teaches digital forensics in their cybersecurity program. The counseling department at [the School of Leadership and Education Sciences] has the only university course so far addressing trauma. The Child Advocacy Institute at the law school is a leading champion for children’s rights.” Carpenter believes all of these stakeholders are helping advance this cause, and is excited about collaborating in a powerful new way.

As a first step, the Kroc School and the School of Law are jointly hosting “Stopping Traffick”, a two-day solutions summit jointly focused on developing a campus-wide initiative to address human trafficking. The two-day event, January 29-30, 2020, will provide the opportunity for those within the USD community, including all academic departments and institutes, as well as alumni and community members working within the human trafficking field, to explore and design an innovative and effective role for USD in addressing this issue. 

“I like to think that USD has helped San Diego set a gold standard for evidence-based research policy and legislation, even if we have a long way to go. The more we keep learning together, the greater our chances of making a real impact,” says Carpenter.

Stay tuned for more updates about USD’s actions related to human trafficking prevention in the months ahead.


Justin Prugh
(619) 260-7573