NEW YORK: Human Trafficking Intervention Courts Offer Help to Prostitution Defendants

trafficking, human trafficking, prostitutes, legal aid, GEMS
An expansion of Human Trafficking Intervention Courts across New York state offers help instead of penalties to those accused of prostitution.Steven Taylor/Getty Images

By Sadhbh Walshe on October 31, 2013—
“They look so young. Some of the accused in Judge Toko Serita’s courtroom could easily pass as high school seniors instead of who they are: criminal defendants waiting to go before a judge on prostitution charges.

It’s a serious charge, one that can carry up to 90 days in jail. But on this October morning in the borough of Queens, Serita isn’t presiding from a traditional bench. Instead, she calls into session the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court.

A growing awareness of just how deeply human trafficking is entrenched in the commercial sex industry means that the women and girls in this room not only could avoid a jail sentence but also could get connected with counseling and services, their first real chance to escape the trap of their circumstances.

The court in Queens is just one of three Human Trafficking Intervention Courts already in operation in New York state. By November there will be a total of 11, all allowing defendants to have their cases dismissed if they successfully complete a prescribed number of mandated sessions with service providers.

In 2011, 70 percent of the defendants who came before the Midtown Community Court in Manhattan were identified as trafficking victims. The goal of the new statewide court system is to give nearly all defendants charged with prostitution a chance to escape from the pimps or traffickers who may be controlling them. If it works as planned, getting arrested — usually a sex worker’s biggest fear — may turn out to be a blessing.

“It was the best thing that happened to me,” said 29-year-old Mexican native Anna Gomez (not her actual name), referring to her experience with Serita’s court following an arrest earlier this year during a brothel raid.

Easy prey

Gomez was easy prey for a team of sex traffickers when she arrived in the U.S. at 15, alone and without papers. Now, as she sits in her attorney’s office at the Queens Family Justice Center, she can hardly believe how her life has changed. Initially, she was convinced she’d be back at work in the brothel as soon as her case was closed. By the third meeting with her counselors, however, her skepticism faded.

“I realized that there were options and that maybe I could get out of this,” she said.

The idea of offering options instead of penalties and jail sentences to those arrested for selling sex took root in the Queens courtroom more than 10 years ago when Serita’s predecessor, Judge Fernando Camacho, found himself face to face with a 16-year-old charged with prostitution who had been arrested multiple times.”

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