New Data Reveals Human Trafficking Remains Prevalent in Tennessee 

More cases of human trafficking reported in Tennessee than Arkansas and Mississippi combined.

Laron Matlock smiled and blew a kiss to his family shortly before being sentenced to 15 years in prison for sex trafficking last Thursday.

From July to August 1st, 2012, Matlock benefited financially from forcing and coercing a 16-year-old girl to work as a prostitute in Memphis and Nashville.

Matlock, 33, conspired with co-defendant Briana Harris to transport the minor, simply identified by the moniker "T.S." in court, from Racine, Wisconsin, to Memphis. Following her arrival, Matlock took seductive pictures of T.S. and posted them on Backpage.com to solicit clients interested in hiring minors for prostitution. She was trafficked to clients in both Memphis and Nashville. All the money made from her clients went to Matlock.

click to enlarge Laron Matlock
  • Laron Matlock

In August 2012, Matlock was arrested in Arlington, Tennessee, while attempting to traffic T.S. to an older man for commercial sex.

U.S. Senior District Judge Jon McCalla said that Matlock's sentence would convey to others interested in trafficking that the penalties are extremely serious.

"Minors shouldn't be marketed as just a thing for someone else's gratification," McCalla said in federal court on February 12th. "The role of sentencing is to change public behavior — unequivocally say minors are off-limits."

Human trafficking remains prevalent in Tennessee's western district and the state as a whole. Data from a recent report released by Polaris, an anti-human-trafficking agency, revealed that more trafficking cases were reported in Tennessee than Mississippi and Arkansas combined last year. The information is attributed to reports made to Polaris' National Human Trafficking Resource Center [NHTRC] hotline and BeFree (233733) texting helpline.

In 2014, 73 cases of human trafficking in Tennessee were reported to the NHTRC. Since 2007, the NHTRC has received reports of 262 cases of human trafficking in Tennessee. 

In Mississippi, over the same time frame, 29 cases were reported. In Arkansas, there were 17 cases of trafficking reported last year.

Lara Powers, program specialist for the (NHTRC) hotline, said the numbers in the report are more indicative of awareness of Polaris' hotline number than the actual prevalence of trafficking in the area.

"When it comes to Tennessee's numbers being higher, really that's just an indicator that more people are aware of our hotline number in Tennessee, and it's possible that there might be more outreach and training on human trafficking," Powers said. "We tend to get a lot of reports from those [areas that] have been working on trafficking for a while and have pretty good infrastructure for that response."

In 2014, NHTRC experienced a 26 percent increase in calls directly from trafficking survivors nationwide, compared to the previous year.

Last year, there were 5,167 cases of human trafficking across the country reported to the NHTRC hotline and Polaris' BeFree texting helpline. Since the NHTRC hotline was established in 2007, there have been nearly 20,000 cases of human trafficking reported through it, along with Polaris' BeFree texting helpline.

Once victims contact the hotline or helpline and a trafficking assessment is completed, they have the option to receive emergency health care, temporary shelter, and assistance from law enforcement. If the victim is a minor, their case is automatically reported to law enforcement.

Following Matlock's 15-year sentence, U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton said the outcome is another example that law enforcement will remain vigilant and aggressive in prosecuting sex traffickers.

"Sex trafficking is akin to modern-day slavery; human beings are being treated like property," Stanton said. "When we prosecute these cases federally, there's no opportunity for parole. We're holding these [traffickers] accountable."

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