Six years after New York created Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, some say the system isn’t living up to its promise.
Almost every Friday morning, a familiar scene plays out in Judge Toko Serita’s courtroom in the Queens Criminal Court. The women there have been charged with prostitution-related crimes, and many have gone through her courtroom more than once.
“Last time I saw you, you were not doing well,” Judge Serita said gently to one woman who had begun working in prostitution after leaving her abusive husband. She had been arrested twice within a couple months.
When New York State created a network of 12 Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, criminal justice professionals hailed it as an innovation. The courts send people into counseling sessions to help them leave the multibillion-dollar sex trade while dismissing their charges and sealing their records.
But even as courts like these have begun to proliferate nationwide, New York’s own have come under increasing criticism, six years into their operation, that they are not living up to their promise.
A lack of data or measurable goals has made it difficult to determine if the approach works: New York does not track what happens to the people who pass through the system, or how often they return.
One counseling provider, Womankind, left the program in Queens this year after deciding it was easier to build trust outside of the court system.
And a growing group of people engaged in prostitution, including many immigrants in Queens, have complained that the counseling sessions amount to little more than unproductive conversations with well-meaning strangers.
“The court is great for keeping you out of prison, and it’s better for understanding exploitation. But it still doesn’t take into account all the precursors, those factors that led you to prostitution in the first place,” said Melanie Thompson, 23, a sex-trafficking victim.
Variations of the diversion program have sprung up across the country. Seattle, Atlanta and Santa Fe, N.M., have adopted similar models, and at least seven other major cities are exploring the approach.
But in New York, where the idea originated, it is facing skepticism, and it has become part of a larger debate over whether prostitution should be considered a crime in the first place.
Some point to the courts’ flaws as proof that problems with exploitation in the sex trade cannot be solved by law enforcement. Others say the courts have opened the minds of law enforcement officials to the idea of decriminalizing prostitution, while serving as an entry point for people who might otherwise get no services at all.
“Everyone can agree we don’t want people to go through the process of arrest because it’s really traumatic. But everything else is really nuanced,” said Yvonne Chen, supervising program manager at the anti-trafficking initiative at Sanctuary for Families, which works with the courts.
In New York, this debate is rooted in Queens, an enclave of immigrants that has become a hub for the sex trade. In Flushing’s illicit massage parlors, Asian immigrants in debt-bondage are forced into prostitution by sex traffickers; along Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, transgender, undocumented immigrants from Latin America come to the trade after being turned away from work in restaurants and hotels.
In the early 2000s, a judge in the Queens Criminal Court, Fernando M. Camacho, began noticing that many of these people were trapped in a cycle: Soliciting sex led to arrests that landed them in his courtroom, and then earned them criminal records that made it hard to find work outside the sex trade.
“My gut told me they were not criminals. They were not doing this voluntarily,” said Judge Camacho, who began informally connecting people he suspected were sex-trafficking victims to volunteer service providers.
In 2013, his experiment was formalized into the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts. State officials are adding a 13th court in Schenectady County next year.
In the Queens court on a recent Friday, the gallery was filled with mostly immigrant women sitting nervously beneath fluorescent lights. Signs in English and Chinese instructed them to turn off their cellphones as they waited for their names to be called and for translators to help them understand the proceedings. Sometimes women were accompanied by older men, who lawyers said they believed were pimps.
The nonprofits that work with the courts offer trauma counseling and consultations with immigration attorneys, as well as assistance navigating public health care, affordable housing and education programs. The more times women go through the court process, the more sessions they must attend.
“A lot of these girls are under the coercion and control of pimps. They can’t just go get health care or IDs or other services unless they go through the courts,” said Rachel Lloyd, the executive director of Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, one of the service providers.
Though it often takes years and multiple arrests, many service providers say they have seen the process guide people out of prostitution.
“It was really scary, but I’m grateful for it. If I wasn’t arrested, I’m not sure I would have made it out of the life,” said Adriana, 29, who was sex trafficked for six years. The Times is withholding her last name to protect her future job prospects. “Hearing other people talk about the bigger picture, about how they had been manipulated, that was really eye-opening.”
But some people in the sex trade — particularly immigrants — said intertwining the criminal justice system, which holds the threat of punishment, with social services that are intended to help, sends a baffling message.
A.G., a 33-year-old immigrant from China who went through the Queens intervention court, said she ultimately did not tell her assigned counselor much about her life in Queens or China. She is being identified by her initials because her family does not know she is involved in prostitution.
“I didn’t feel like she was really there to help me,” A.G. said of her counselor.
Last year, the first independent assessment of the program by the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership, a research initiative from Yale University, bolstered those complaints. The study found that when social services are mandated by courts, people in prostitution see them as an extension of law enforcement, which they have often been introduced to through frightening arrests.
That distrust undermines the effectiveness of the counseling sessions and decreases the likelihood that people will return to the providers later for help leaving the trade, researchers found.
“A lot of people in sessions stay quiet because they are afraid what they say will have an impact on their immigration status or what happens to them in court,” said Jennifer Orellana, 47, a self-described sex worker from Puerto Rico and member of the advocacy network Make The Road.
The counseling would be more helpful for moving people out of prostitution if it offered practical skills such as resume writing or cosmetology classes, she added.
That complaint touches on a growing divide over whether policies to address exploitation in the sex trade should assume everyone in prostitution is a victim who was forced into the trade and cannot access services, or leave room for people who, like Ms. Orellana, say they are involved by choice.
The division has become more pronounced in recent years with more mainstream acceptance of decriminalizing prostitution. The two camps have sparred over whether the goal should be to eliminate all sex trade — and by extension, sex trafficking — or make prostitution a regulated industry.
While the debate unfolds, there is little question that the efforts have changed how prostitution is policed. The number of prostitution-related arrests in New York in 2019 dropped dramatically from the previous year.