Human trafficking in illicit massage businesses, or IMBs, is a widespread issue in the United States. According to a 2018 Polaris report, there are over 9,000 IMBs with a total annual revenue of about $2.5 billion.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced the Hope Initiative Tuesday, a statewide initiative to target IMBs by working with landlords to evict tenants, saving time and resources on bringing forth individual lawsuits and criminal cases.

“The way that Hollywood and society in general has portrayed human trafficking and illicit massage businesses is typically wrong,” said Sarah Jones, the assistant attorney general for special litigation at the news conference Tuesday. “For instance, just because victim workers aren’t being held in chains or at gunpoint does not mean that force, fraud and coercion are not present.”

Schmitt, who is currently running for reelection, also announced Thursday that his office secured a grant that will help process about 900 sexual assault kits in the backlog of untested kits.

The first phase, which has already been completed, consisted of sending 77 letters to landlords who may be unwittingly leasing to an IMB. The letter encouraged the landlords to evict the suspected IMBs as soon as possible, citing the precedent in State of Missouri v. Golden Massage, which affirmed the illegality of IMBs.

The goal of the initiative, according to the attorney general’s office, is to work alongside the landlords but they have also been in touch with prosecutors and law enforcement should criminal charges need to be brought.

Of the 77 total landlords contacted, 41 have responded to the attorney general’s letter and 23 of those responsive landlords have evicted their tenants, refused to renew leases or no longer have the businesses as a tenant, according to a news release.

The office of the attorney general has spent months identifying IMBs in the state, contacting landlords and coordinating with local prosecutors and law enforcement said Chris Nuelle, Schmitt’s press secretary 

Jones also went more in depth into common characteristics of illicit massage businesses that citizens can look for to identify and report possible human trafficking, such as prices below market and male-only clientele.

Schmitt said Tuesday that he was committed to eliminating IMBs in Missouri.“You will no longer be able to hide behind the facade of a legitimate business and continue your organized criminal activity,” Schmitt said.

  • Public Life reporter, fall 2020. Studying data journalism. Reach me at gracecooper@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • Molly Hart is an assistant city editor at the Missourian. She has previously reported on state government. She can be reached at mhart@mail.missouri.edu.

  • Mark Horvit is the state government editor. Call me at 817-726-1621 with story ideas, tips or complaints.

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