Police and prosecutors are devoting more resources to sex trafficking cases in the Twin Cities. Authorities say it's a problem that crosses geographic lines, and is not uncommon in the suburbs.
"We always want to go after mister or miss big," said County Attorney Mike Freeman. "Many times the actual person providing the sexual services is a young girl being exploited. These girls are someone's daughter, someone's sister."
But Freeman says bringing those responsible into a courtroom is often complicated. Its not like prosecuting a robbery where there might be surveillance video and the criminal is clearly identified.
"Does that person have an address? Maybe. Does that person have a car? Probably. Do they change the cars every couple of days? Maybe. Do they move from town to town? Yes. All of those make this more difficult," said Freeman.
Suburban police say most people would be surprised about how often it happens.
"Especially with juvenile sex trafficking, that its out there," said Plymouth Deputy Chief Dan Plekkenpol.
In fact arrests are up after Plymouth investigators last year joined with other suburban police departments in setting up a special task force to investigate these crimes.
"Not to say there's any spike in this kind of crime, but we're looking at it now in a more intense factor, we're finding more of it," said Plekkenpol.
"We prosecuted about 20 people for sex trafficking related crimes last year that was significantly more than in previous years," said Freeman.
Earlier this month, the Hennepin County Board approved money to add a dedicated prosecutor to the county attorney's office and an investigator to the sheriff's office to focus on these kind of trafficking crimes. Freeman says it should help bring more cases to court and keep up with changes in how they do business.
"It used to be very much of a street kind of crime, now its gotten high tech," said Freeman.
Police say it used to be simple to find ads online, but now Freeman says it takes more online savvy to track down these cases using the dark web.
"You can't do this without resources and thankfully the county board has recognized that, so we're going to use that person and use it well," he said.
Investigators and prosecutors work with a county program called, "No Wrong Door," which means if a victim comes to the county through the child protection, welfare system, or hospitals, they are welcome, and treated as victims not criminals.
"To see if we can get them help, get them out of prostitution," said Plekkenpol. "There are resources available to assist them."
County Attorney Freeman agreed.
"The most positive thing is the young woman whose life is in shambles because of what other people did to her is taken care of," he said.
Hennepin County plans to evaluate the outcomes of the No Wrong Door initiative at the end of the year, including the number of cases prosecuted.
Mike Johnson, reporting
March 23, 2017