In an effort to better handle cases related to or involving prostitution, the state of New York is creating and implementing a statewide court system that is specifically designed to help prostitutes by treating prostitution not as a crime, but as modern-day slavery.
What this means is that starting in October, any prostitution case that is not resolved at an arraignment — with either a guilty plea or a case dismissal — will be sent to the special courts, where a judge will determine, along with prosecutors and defense attorneys, whether or not the defendant is in need of assistance to help prostitutes escape the industry and the “grips of their abusers.”
If the court rules a defendant is in need of assistance, the courts will help connect the defendant with shelters, health care and drug treatment services, job training, education and other resources.
New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said that with the implementation of the new courts, nearly 95 percent of all defendants charged with prostitution and related offenses will be handled in the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, since more and more criminal justice experts agree that prostitutes are more often coerced into the profession than choose to do so.
“Human trafficking is a crime that inflicts terrible harm on the most vulnerable members of society: victims of abuse, the poor, children, runaways, immigrants,” Lippman said, adding that the new Human Trafficking Intervention Courts will prevent “victims of trafficking [from slipping] between the cracks of our justice system.”
“It is in every sense a form of modern-day slavery,” Lippman said. “We have come to recognize that the vast majority of children and adults charged with prostitution offenses are commercially exploited or at risk of exploitation.”
While a few other states have cities with special human trafficking-focused courts, including Baltimore, Columbus, Phoenix, and West Palm Beach, Fla., the new court system in New York is the first to deal with human trafficking on a statewide basis. The new courts illustrate a trend in the U.S. of decriminalizing prostitution, and charging pimps and johns with crimes instead of the prostitutes themselves.
In some European nations such as France that have legalized prostitution, laws have been implemented to legally protect the nation’s some 18,000 prostitutes from the “dangers from unscrupulous customers or pimps” by only penalizing those who disturb the peace of the public or soliciting customers in public places. Under France’s criminal laws, those who exploit another for sexual purposes such as pimps and johns can be sentenced to time behind bars as well as be forced to pay a fine.
How does it work?
The new human trafficking court system will operate in a similar fashion to three pilot courts in Manhattan, Queens and Nassau County, which implemented human trafficking intervention courts several years ago, finding that automatically putting prostitutes behind bars and treating them like criminals doesn’t change their behavior.
In total, 11 of these new human trafficking-focused courts will exist throughout the state of New York. Five will be in New York City — one for each borough — and are expected to be running by mid-October. The other six will be located throughout various parts of the state and will start toward the end of October.
Lippman said the cost of the new court system has already been built into the current budget, and includes prosecutors, defense attorney and judges who have been specifically trained to handle human trafficking and prostitution cases.
In addition to connecting a trafficking victim or prostitute with organizations that could help them escape the sex trade industry, judges may also decide to dismiss or reduce charges against the defendant, so long as the defendant complies with the court-directed programs.
Steven Banks is the attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society of New York City. He applauded the implementation of the new court system, and said treating prostitutes as criminals often negatively affects their ability to find safe housing, obtain employment and their ability to receive financial aid to get a higher education.
“Our clients in these cases are the victims of crimes,” Banks said. “They’ve been branded in many cases on their bodies by people treating them as if they are nothing more than property.”
“It’s certainly critical that underlying all of this is the concept of providing a helping hand rather than the back of a hand,” Banks said, adding that this type of system “can give human trafficking survivors a second chance in life.”
Human trafficking epidemic
Last year about 3,700 defendants were charged in New York state with prostitution and related crimes. Lippman said the new program “will stop the pattern of shuffling trafficking victims through our criminal courtrooms without addressing the underlying reasons why they are there in the first place.”
While human trafficking is not always just a sex crime, Lippman said that about 80 percent of the trafficking victims in New York are trafficked for sex, and most of them are U.S. citizens.
“It is not just halfway across the globe,” he said. “It is around the corner from all of us.”
The announcement of the new court system came hours before the Institute of Medicine released a report examining the impact of sex trafficking and the exploitation of children in the U.S., since the most common age for a child to become a prostitute is between 12 and 14 years of age.
Funded by the Justice Department, the report said sex trafficking and other forms of exploitation are “commonly overlooked, misunderstood and unaddressed forms of child abuse.” The report also highlighted discrepancies in statutory rape laws that say children under a certain age cannot legally consent to sex, while at the same time arresting and charging persons under that age with prostitution crimes.
A fresh start
During the announcement that the state of New York would be implementing this groundbreaking new court system, Lippman shared success stories from the pilot court program in Queens. He introduced 27-year-old Lakisha, a former prostitute who says she was forced into the industry at the age of 12. Lakisha referred to the court program as a “support system” and said it “led me to a network of people who were able to help me escape.”
Since Lakisha first began receiving help from the courts, she has been off the streets she worked for six years, obtained an associate’s degree in public administration and is now working on getting her bachelor’s degree.
“I feel like it’s a going to have a big impact and change the way victims are dealt with,” she said.
Her advice for those who are currently being forced to prostitute themselves was to “accept the help that’s being given. Don’t be afraid.”
Kathleen Rice is the District Attorney for Nassau County, one of the pilot locations for the human trafficking court. She said the new court system will likely become a model for the nation and should improve the lives of countless victims.
“We have to think differently about how we prosecute prostitution cases and who we prosecute to combat the exploitation and the demand that fuel human trafficking,” Rice said.