CLEMSON — Human trafficking in South Carolina may be more prevalent than previously thought, according to a study released by researchers at Clemson University.

Nearly 20 percent of past kidnapping and prostitution case files analyzed from police incident reports in Greenville County over a three year period (2010-2012) had markers indicating the presence of human trafficking, said the study’s leader, Mark Small, a professor in Clemson’s youth, family and community studies department and associate director of Clemson’s Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life.

Historically, human trafficking was viewed as a problem of smuggling and illegal migration, but it more recently has been seen as a problem of commercial sexual exploitation, especially of minors, and of forced labor, especially through the use of coercion or fraud, Small said.

The U.S. government criminalized human trafficking in 2000, and states began revising their criminal codes soon after, Small added. In 2012, South Carolina passed legislation making human trafficking a felony with a first offense carrying a penalty up to 15 years in prison. Trafficking with a minor can add an additional 15 years.

The study was partially funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, and administered by the S.C. Department of Public Safety’s Office of Highway Safety and Justice Programs.

The study is the first empirical study in the state to examine how the incidence of human trafficking is captured and reported in a Palmetto State database and can be found online at the S.C. Department of Public Safety website.

“There is a great deal of interest in addressing the problem of human trafficking in South Carolina, but very little data on prevalence and severity of the problem,” Small said. “Because South Carolina only recently passed legislation criminalizing human trafficking, data collection is just now beginning across the state on its prevalence. Our study indicates that this is likely a serious problem in the state.”

The research team — comprised of Small and international family and community studies Ph.D. students Andrea Morales and Traci Hefner — analyzed South Carolina databases, then developed an innovative method to estimate the percentage of past kidnapping and prostitution cases that might warrant additional charges of human trafficking. As a pilot project in cooperation from the Greenville County Department of Public Safety Records Division, the researchers scrutinized narratives from police incident reports.

“This project represents an important first step in providing information that might better inform human trafficking polices related to law enforcement training and services,” said Robert McManus, recently retired director of South Carolina’s Statistical Analysis Center. “Policies designed to address serious problems require accurate, reliable information, and when that information is lacking, it is important that we make an honest assessment of that shortcoming and try to fix it.”

“South Carolina is a little behind the curve in addressing human trafficking,” Small said. “With the ongoing work of a state task force established in 2012 that is led by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, I am optimistic that the state will make progress — not only in law enforcement but in victim services as well. Any research can only help.”

Last year, the task force developed a statewide plan for addressing human trafficking that includes findings, recommendations, general information and resources.