The women walk down the street in sweat pants and tank tops, looking casual, as if strolling down a grocery-store aisle. Until a car slows down and stops in front of them, and they get in.
In 2011, the FBI reported almost 1,000 people were arrested in Indiana for either prostitution or patronizing a prostitute.
"We're taking a closer look on who these women are," Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said. "They are not just prostitutes on the street. They came from somewhere, they belong to someone. There's a story behind these girls."
Sheriff's police have has begun the process of creating a unit to target human trafficking.
According to the FBI, about 8 in 10 of the suspected incidents of human trafficking in 2008-10 were classified as sex trafficking.
The department is planning prostitution sting operations throughout the county, targeting northern urban areas where it is most prevalent.
Buncich said he has assigned a full-time detective to the initiative, and the department is compiling intelligence on human trafficking in the county.
“It's definitely a problem,” Buncich said. “Our investigations have shown that there is something to this. There is something going on here.”
In July, sheriff's police teamed up with the Hammond Police Department to conduct two successful stings.
The object of a sting, or a reverse-sting, which targets those seeking the services of a prostitute, is to identify and arrest individuals engaged in prostitution and the customers patronizing the prostitutes, commonly known as johns.
"What we're doing is going after the johns and also taking a closer look at these women and learning about who they are and finding which women are victims of human trafficking,” Buncich said.
In the stings, five women were arrested for prostitution and four men were arrested for patronizing a prostitute.
"It's not a victimless crime," Hammond Police Chief Brian Miller said. "This brings criminals into Hammond to look for the girls, people like murderers and robbers. We don't want to bring war into the city."
A fresh approach
Commercial sex is a form of human trafficking that happens to males, females, adults and children, in which someone is coerced through fraud, force or threat into the sex trade. If someone age 18 or older is practicing prostitution without coercion, they are committing the crime of prostitution. However, the two can be painfully linked.
Abby Kuzma, of the Indiana Attorney Generals Office, serves on the Indiana Protection for Abused and Trafficked Humans Taskforce.
Kuzma said most of those initially pulled or pushed into commercial sex in the U.S. are between ages 12 and 14.
State and federal law regards a prostitute younger than 18 as a human-trafficking victim. Kuzma said those 18 and older engaging in prostitution probably started out as victims of human trafficking.
“There's a reason prostitution is illegal,” Kuzma said. “It is very destructive and it's an outrageous human-rights violation. You look at movies and there's a ridiculous amount of glamorization. It's depicted in a rosy light; they downplay the disease, the abuse.”
Kuzma said it appears the increase of human trafficking in the U.S. is in part due to people using Internet sites solicit illegal services.
Kuzma said between 2005 and now, 126 cases of human trafficking have been identified in Indiana through the combined efforts of law enforcement and nonprofit organizations.
She said conducting stings will be a big help in combating the problem.
“If you look at these girls as 'bad' girls, you have a society that is tolerating commercial sex,” Kuzma said.
“Even if someone is a prostitute, one statistic is very clear across the board: the element of desperation. A very high percentage of them are homeless and came on hard times and are desperate.”
According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, the average lifespan of someone in prostitution is 34, with violence and drugs the predominant causes of death.
“In the long run, we'll be saving lives,” Buncich said.