Human trafficking in the form of sexual slavery is a real problem in our country – one that the federal government is fighting hard to dismantle. The ability of traffickers to sell their victims for sex on the Internet has caused this issue to proliferate. In response, federal investigative and prosecutorial efforts have increased dramatically in recent years. For example, in 2009, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania initiated a sex trafficking working group with the FBI and the Philadelphia Police Department, leading to an exponential increase in the number of federal investigations in our District. As a result, over the past decade, we have federally prosecuted dozens of trafficking ventures (and individual traffickers) in Philadelphia and the eight other counties within our District operating over the Internet, in area hotels, and in residential properties.

Federal judges have imposed sentences typically in the range of 30 years to life imprisonment, with no possibility of parole in the federal system. For example, Kevino Graham was sentenced to 100 years for running a brothel in Philadelphia and subjecting three young women to sadistic sexual violence. Christian Womack was sentenced to life in prison for trafficking a teenager in multiple states, including Pennsylvania, as well as the attempted trafficking of other young women by force. Corderro Cody was sentenced to 30 years for the sex trafficking of minors and adults by force. Moreover, last year we joined a task force that includes the Philadelphia Police Department, the Salvation Army, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security, which is actively working to identify and prosecute targets, provide essential services to victims and educate both law enforcement and the public. In addition, my Office’s Human Trafficking Coordinator, Michelle Morgan, has engaged the community, high school students, law enforcement officers, judges, and non-profit organizations in countless forums across the District, providing ongoing education and awareness. SEPTA, too, has joined the fight, posting a human trafficking hotline in many stations, trains and subway cars. Change is afoot.

Thus, in the United States, the current landscape of ending modern-day slavery is not as bleak as suggested by a recent commentary in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Douglas Pike. Mr. Pike’s article lumps the U.S. in with the rest of the world—by referring to “the Brit-turned-New Yorker” who escaped an abusive pimp; by claiming that every former slave is replaced by “a new slave somewhere, including the United States”; and by criticizing law enforcement for “too many light sentences” with “virtually no risk that the criminals will get punished.” In doing so, the author apparently seeks to draw a moral equivalency between the U.S. and Third World regimes where slavery is commonplace. Not exactly fair-minded analysis, to say the least.

The avoidable tragedy in the current landscape is the common misperception of what the crime actually is. The fact is, most people engaging in prostitution in our District are doing it against their will – for another person’s exclusive profit. Most people engaging in prostitution in our District are American citizens of color, a vast portion of whom are juvenile females, recruited in their own neighborhoods, in public transit stations, outside their public schools, or on social media, by “Romeo pimps” posing as would-be boyfriends. Most people engaging in prostitution in our District were recruited drug-free, and introduced to serious drugs by their trafficker as a means of coercion. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s new policy of normalizing prostitution, most significantly by failing to adequately penalize or even charge the buyers, sends the wrong message to our community – that local prosecutors do not view trafficking as serious enough to do everything possible to stop it (or, to put it more bluntly, do not view it as a problem at all). Until we stop pretending that prostitution is only engaged in by consenting adults as some sort of lifestyle choice, we will be crippling ourselves in our ability to combat this problem. And more young victims will continue to suffer.

William M. McSwain is the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.