In Our Own Backyards: The Need for a Coordinated Judicial Response to Human Trafficking


In a relatively short period of time, New York State has put itself at the vanguard of the battle against human trafficking. New York has passed several laws criminalizing sex and labor trafficking, I recognized that anyone younger than eighteen years of age arrested on prostitution charges is a “sexually exploited child” and a “victim of a severe form of trafficking,” and, most recently, provided a way for sex trafficking victims to vacate their prostitution convictions.  In the years since these laws took effect, I have observed that our understanding of the dynamics of domestic and foreign sex trafficking, both locally and domestically, has improved. The trafficking cases that are seen in the Human Trafficking Intervention Court (HTIC), over which I preside, provide a glimpse of this expanded understanding. These cases discredit the popular notion that modem day slavery and the sexual enslavement of girls, women, and foreign undocumented persons do not occur “in our own backyards.” And yet, despite this improved understanding, defendants arrested on prostitution charges are not generally recognized as victims, but are charged as criminals. The criminal justice system has been unable to adequately identify those defendants that might be victims of trafficking. To date, there has been very little scholarship analyzing either New York’s human trafficking laws or the role prostitution diversion courts play in identifying trafficking victims and providing alternatives to incarceration. This article addresses the different types of trafficking cases that are intercepted through the criminal justice system, the current state of sex trafficking law in New York, and, finally, the role of the HTIC in identifying and providing solutions for trafficking victims. It also addresses the necessity of creating a coordinated judicial response to this human rights problem, and recommends ways that this can be accomplished.

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