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NEW YORK — 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.
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.
“I looked at her and the offer, I think, was plea the charge and 15 days (in jail), and I said I don’t want to do this,” Camacho said in an interview with the Center for Court Innovation. “There’s got to be an explanation as to why she’s out in the street at the age of 16.''
Instead of sending her to jail, Camacho connected the girl with an organization called Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS), which specializes in helping victims of sex trafficking. And so the trafficking intervention model was born.
Now there is a network of service providers in the city, and many work with their clients for years after the cases are officially sealed. The first step is to help the women get their paperwork in order so they can utilize any public assistance that's available. Then the search starts for safe housing and a job. Victims often have no proper identification, no credit (or credit problems), and if they were born outside the United States they usually have immigration issues.
For Gomez, learning that she may be entitled to permanent residency under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 was a game changer. Now, just seven months after her arrest, she has a job in a restaurant and her visa application is underway.
“Finally (Anna) is getting the services she should have gotten 13 years ago,” said Dania Lopez Beltran, the Family Justice Center lawyer who is handling Gomez’ case. “But because she has been neglected for so long, her needs are so much greater.”
Beltran is referring to the debilitating trauma that victims endure at the hands of traffickers or pimps while they are trapped “in the life” — a trauma that cannot be miraculously erased by getting a job and a place to live. This is all too apparent when Gomez begins to sob and shake as she recounts the terror she felt after her first beating by a john who left her naked on the street during a snowstorm. She reacts with similar distress as she recalls how her body went into a kind of toxic shock after “servicing” 24 clients on her first night working in a brothel. (Later, she says, her body got used to it and she would often see up to 60 men per night. Her youthful appearance made her so popular, she said, that there was usually a line of men outside her door.)
Critics of criminal penalties argue that such stories reveal the limits of a criminal justice solution to a problem so rooted in social, racial and gender inequality. The average age that sex workers first enter the industry in the U.S. ranges from 12 to 14. Many service providers would like to see stepped-up efforts to stop these girls from falling prey to traffickers in the first place, rather than helping them get on with their lives after years of trauma and abuse.
“We’ve come a really long way with this, and that’s great,” said Rachel Lloyd, founder of GEMS and a former trafficking victim herself. "Women who fall prey to traffickers are no longer automatically being sent to jail or fined. But now we need to take the next step and look at the reasons they fall prey in the first place.”
An even more pressing concern about the criminal justice approach is how it affects victims who cannot comply with the court's mandates or who are simply unable to get out from under their trafficker’s control.
“Our clients are still prosecuted as defendants even though we know they are victims,” said Kate Mogulescu, who heads the Trafficking Victims Legal Defense and Advocacy Project of the Legal Aid Society. “At the end of the day there is a high risk of criminalization.”
Back in Serita’s courtroom, the judge tried to impress this risk on a young Asian girl who was arrested twice in the same location one week apart.
“You understand that if this happens again, the offer that is being made now (that her case would be dismissed) might not happen, and if there are immigration issues you can be deported,” Serita said before mandating that the defendant complete nearly double the usual number of sessions.
Through her interpreter, the girl said she understands what could happen if she doesn't comply. Whether the circumstances of her life will make it possible, if she avoids jail time and deportation, is unknown. After all, her pimp may be waiting around the corner for her. At least, thanks to the timely intervention of the trafficking court and the services it offers, she has a chance — a fighting chance.
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