Do New York’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts Hurt the Women They’re Meant to Help?

Members of the Red Umbrella Project demonstrated outside City Hall over the impact of New York’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts. (Photo courtesy of RedUP/Gabby Jay) 


When 17-year-old Jenna Torres was handcuffed and arrested for prostitution in August of 2013, the undercover police officer told her he didn’t believe she was smart enough to be working without a pimp. But she was. Though Torres, a single mother with an infant son, had turned to sex work on her own, the officer was convinced she was being exploited. He declared Torres a victim of sex trafficking.

After spending 23 hours in jail, Torres was assigned a lawyer who urged her to plead guilty so that her case could be diverted to a specialized court that provides victims of sex trafficking with counseling and other services aimed at keeping them off the streets and away from their exploiters.

Treating women arrested for prostitution as victims rather than criminals is one of the founding principles of that specialized court, known as the Human Trafficking Intervention Court. New York developed and launched the first human trafficking court in Queens in 2004. The initiative has since expanded. There are now 11 human trafficking courts located across the state, including one in each borough of New York City.

In announcing the expansion of the courts in 2013, New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said that doing so would help “to intervene in the lives of trafficked human beings” and “break the cycle of exploitation and arrest.”

But for Torres, the court intervention did more harm than good. “I was just starting college, and I wanted to continue but it was impossible,” she said in an interview. Even though Torres preferred college classes to the court’s mandated yoga and therapy sessions, she knew if she didn’t comply she could be rearrested. After a few weeks scrambling between the two, Torres dropped out of college and went into debt. “I really wanted to finish my education,” she said. “I was excited about school.”

The unintended consequences of a well-meaning program were among the many things recently explored at a City Council hearing on the effectiveness of the courts, which now handle 90 percent of prostitution related crimes in the state, according to the Committee on Courts and Legal Services’ briefing on the oversight hearing. Advocacy groups such as the Red Umbrella Project (RedUP) argued at the hearing that the courts oversimplify the economic circumstances that lead women to sex work and that the mandatory programs don’t address their needs.

Others believe the courts have been effective. They praise the progressive criminal justice approach as a positive step since it provides an alternative to incarceration. The courts “are a fairer approach that serve to help survivors…instead of allowing them to be pursued as criminals,” Richard Aborn, president of Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, said during the City Council hearing.

Some groups that work with sex trafficking victims agree that women fare better in the current system. “In an ideal world, the model would not require an arrest first,” Jayne Bigelson, the director of human trafficking initiatives at New York’s Covenant House, said in an interview. “But until that happens, the intervention courts are a huge step up from what the situation used to look like.”

RedUP staff and advocates getting sworn in to testify at the intervention courts oversight hearing  in City Hall (Facebook/ RedUP/ Gabby Jay)
Jenna Torres (far right) and other RedUP staff being sworn in before testifying at the City Council hearing on the intervention courts. (Photo courtesy of RedUP/Gabby Jay)

While the courts do divert sex trafficking victims from serving time in jail, some nonprofits believe that their approach is counterproductive since it forces those in need to be arrested and enter the criminal justice system in order to access the courts’ services. Mary Caperas, manager of the Project Free initiative at the New York Asian Women’s Center, works with clients who have been referred by the courts. During therapy sessions, she said in an interview, women spend a majority of the time talking about their experience getting arrested and dealing with law enforcement as well as the anxiety of appearing in court. “I don’t want [our clients] to associate us with the criminal justice system,” she said. “It creates a level of distress. The system as it stands creates a barrier for victims to heal, and it could retrigger trauma.”

The situation is especially difficult for foreign nationals since many are undocumented and do not speak English. In Queens, 67 percent of defendants require an interpreter, with nearly half speaking Mandarin, according to a study by RedUP. And because the number of women going through the court more than tripled from 2012 to 2014, there’s been a lack of sufficient interpreters. As a result, the study found that cases for Mandarin speaking defendants took nearly two to three months longer than others.

The interpreter shortage can exacerbate the stress and confusion women experience after being arrested. “They’re still traumatized…due to the way they’re treated by police officers and just the confusion of dealing with the courts and not knowing really what’s transpiring because of language access,” Yasmeen Hamza, director of client services at New York Asian Women’s Center, testified at the City Council hearing.

Some advocates would like to see prostitution legalized and treated like any other job where employers are held accountable for creating a safe work environment. Many women “engage in the sex industry because they don’t have access to the formal economy,” Channelle Gallant co-founder of the Migrant Sex Worker Project, said in an interview. “There’s a misunderstanding that sex work is always forced.”

That was the misunderstanding Torres faced when she was arrested. Although she didn’t return to college, she now works as a community organizer at RedUP, where she hopes to use her own experience to help women get services they need before they get arrested. “The people who are furthest away from the issue are making decisions on behalf of us, and that’s not fair,” she said. “As long as people who are in the sex trades either by coercion, economic circumstance or choice are rescued through arrest and subjected to mandated services, they will continue to be re-victimized by the police and courts.”

Melissa Etehad