NEW YORK – New York is creating the nation's first statewide system of courts to help prostitutes escape a life of exploitation and violence and move on to productive lives, the state's chief judge 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," Judge Jonathan Lippman told attorneys, advocates for women and service providers at a breakfast meeting Wednesday in Manhattan.
"Human trafficking is a crime that inflicts terrible harm on the most vulnerable members of society: victims of abuse, the poor, children, runaways, immigrants," said Lippman, chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. "It is in every sense a form of modern-day slavery. We cannot tolerate this practice in a civilized society, nor can we afford to let victims of trafficking slip between the cracks of our justice system."
While human trafficking includes labor trafficking, nearly 80 percent of victims in New York are trafficked for sex, Lippman said.
Most are U.S. citizens, Lippman said.
"It is not just halfway across the globe. It is around the corner from all of us," he said.
Three pilot courts in Queens, midtown Manhattan and Nassau County in suburban Long Island are up and running. The specialized courts will be operating throughout New York City by mid-October and around the state by the end of October.
The courts will have presiding judges trained in the dynamics of sex trafficking and the services available to victims.
Lippman said the courts will identify appropriate defendants and refer them to services "that will assist them in leading productive lives, rather than sending them right back to the grip of their abusers."
He said the initiative "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."
The project will be a model for the nation and should improve the lives of countless victims, Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said.
"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.
Treating the victims of sex trafficking as criminals can hamper their ability to secure housing, employment and financial aid for education, said Steven Banks, attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society of New York City. "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."