Specialized sex-trafficking courts smartly address underlying issues

The New York TimesSeptember 28, 2013 

The following editorial appeared in the New York Times:

As understanding of the cruel dynamics of sex-trafficking has grown in recent years, a consensus has emerged among criminal justice professionals that it makes more sense to treat people charged with prostitution as the exploited and abused victims a vast majority are, rather than as criminals. An important new initiative by New York state’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, aims to put that humane insight into practice.

A handful of cities across the country, including Baltimore and Phoenix, have specialized courts that deal with sex-trafficking offenses. On Wednesday, Lippman announced the creation of the nation’s first statewide system of specialized criminal courts to handle prostitution-related offenses and make services available to help sex-trafficking victims escape their abusive situations and forge new lives.

“This new initiative will stop the pattern of shuffling trafficking victims through our criminal courtrooms without addressing the underlying reasons they are there in the first place,” Lippman said.

Three courts created as pilot projects are up and running in Queens, Manhattan and Nassau County. Eight additional Human Trafficking Intervention Courts will be in operation in urban, suburban and rural areas around the state by the end of October. They will be overseen by judges familiar with the particular challenges facing trafficking victims – many of them lured into the sex trade as underage girls – and the services available to them.

The program borrows, in some respects, from the state’s system of specialized courts that deal with domestic violence and low-level drug offenses. It calls for prostitution-related cases to be evaluated by the judge, defense lawyer and prosecutor. If they agree, the court will connect defendants to critical services like safe shelter, medical and drug treatment, immigration assistance and education and job training that can help prevent a return to the sex industry. Contingent upon the defendants’ compliance with court-ordered services and programs, the charges may be dismissed or reduced, enabling the defendants to avoid a criminal record with damaging repercussions for housing, employment, college financial aid, government benefits and immigration status.

Lippman was joined at his announcement by an array of people whose efforts will be needed to make the program effective. The group included Kathleen Rice, Nassau County’s district attorney who leads the state’s District Attorneys Association; Steven Banks, the Legal Aid Society’s attorney in chief; and representatives from Sanctuary for Families’ Anti-Trafficking Initiative and other service providers involved in the plan.

New York’s court budget is already severely stretched. But the special trafficking courts will require minimal new spending, just more creative management of existing resources, Lippman said. Much will depend, though, on whether service providers can obtain sufficient financing from government and private sources. Of course, the program, by itself, cannot end the scourge of sex-trafficking. But reorienting the court system to serve the needs of victims is an enlightened step, one with real promise.

The New York Times

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