New Jersey's top law enforcement office is starting a human trafficking unit to tackle crimes of forced labor and sexual exploitation.
About two dozen human trafficking cases have been prosecuted by counties since January 2018, according to state Attorney General Matthew Platkin. The new unit — under the Division of Criminal Justice — will take the lead on investigations going forward.
In a statement about the initiative on Thursday, Platkin's office said litigators and investigators would take on the “aggressive pursuit of criminal networks that trade in people and exploit them for profit.” The attorney general announced the unit at the Division of Criminal Justice’s 13th annual Human Trafficking Awareness Event at the Trenton War Memorial.
The unit will be led by Theresa Hilton, a deputy director in the Division of Criminal Justice who was hired in September to oversee sexual and domestic violence prevention policy and criminal enforcement. She previously led the domestic violence unit at the Union County Prosecutor’s Office.
Platkin’s office said it’s hard to estimate how widespread human trafficking is, because people who’ve been trafficked rarely speak to law enforcement.
But he said the FBI considers New Jersey a hub for trafficking, partly because it’s positioned between major metropolitan areas.
“We know about some of the activity, whether in Atlantic City or in motels along some of the highways in the state, and occurring online,” Platkin said. “It's also a problem on the labor side, where people are trafficked to provide low-cost labor, which we've seen happen in this state.”
Last year, a New Jersey State Police hotline received 97 calls about alleged human trafficking, the office said, though it didn’t specify how many of those were substantiated or led to prosecutions.
Col. Patrick J. Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, described human trafficking in a statement as some of the “reprehensible physical and emotional abuse that results in psychological scars that last a lifetime."