When Bradley Schoenleben (JD ’07) envisioned his career with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, he knew he would be helping victims of crime, but he couldn’t have imagined the way that role would evolve. Since 2013, Schoenleben has worked as a Deputy DA in the office’s Human Exploitation and Trafficking (HEAT) Unit, which targets perpetrators who sexually exploit and traffic women and underage children for financial gain, including pimps, panderers, and human traffickers.
“I thought my job would be to put criminals in prison. The next thing you know, I’m talking to hundreds of churchgoers about how they can help combat human trafficking,” Schoenleben said. “I always wanted to help the community, but I saw it as prosecuting criminals. It has been really rewarding to have the opportunity to help victims in a more personal way.”
The HEAT unit has worked closely with law enforcement to investigate and prosecute cases of human trafficking in Orange County, finding success thanks to a shift in the perceptions about human trafficking, according to Schoenleben. Prior to the unit’s founding, incidents were largely underreported and untracked in Orange County. “Human trafficking used to be under-prosecuted because the cases weren’t completely understood,” he said. “Prostitutes were seen as complicit and would be arrested, and traffickers would continue on if they weren’t caught. What changed was the understanding of the reality versus the myth that this is a victimless crime.”
While Schoenleben’s primary role as a Deputy DA is to prosecute cases, he also provides trainings for other district attorney offices, cities, law enforcement, non-profits, and community groups across the state and country. The unit was even invited to attend informational meetings with United States Congressman Ed Royce. “We can only help so many victims with our resources as prosecutors, but when we work together with other agencies, we’re a force to be reckoned with,” Schoenleben said. “It is encouraging to see that people do care about this topic and that they want to see a change.”
For Schoenleben, the satisfaction of a job well done doesn’t end when he puts a human trafficker behind bars. He is also responsible for connecting victims with services and advocates, which he has found equally fulfilling. “Victims of human trafficking are some of the strongest people you will ever meet,” he said. “It is inspiring to see how they are able to recover from something so horrific.”