The New York State Judiciary announced a groundbreaking Human Trafficking Intervention Initiative last month to address the state’s festering problem of sex trafficking. The effort’s linchpin is simple: Treat trafficking victims like victims — even if arrested for prostitution. If New York’s initiative is conducted well, it holds the promise of decreasing both prostitution and sex trafficking in our communities.

The initiative is the nation’s first statewide system of dedicated courts designed to examine postarraignment prostitution-related cases and identify defendants who are being sold by others and are sex-trafficking victims. Once consensus is reached among the judge, prosecutor and defense lawyer that the person charged is a trafficking victim, the courts will connect victims who agree to necessary services.

Modeled after other special courts such as those for low-level drug offenders, these 11 courts throughout the state seek to intervene in the lives of the victims and provide them with the necessary assistance to escape their traumatic existence as sex-trafficking victims. The victims who successfully complete the program may have their charges reduced or dismissed.

As a threshold matter, the arena of sex trafficking has long needed a paradigm shift away from what the New York judiciary called “an antiquated view of prostitution as a chosen profession.” This view perceives those prostituted as criminals, while it glorifies the so-called “pimps” and fails to hold the so-called “johns” responsible.

Although prostitution can have devastating effects on neighborhoods, it can no longer be perceived as only a victimless nuisance crime voluntarily committed by the people being sold. This initiative recognizes that the strategy of repeatedly arresting those being sold will never eradicate prostitution. Failed programs often target and re-traumatize the wrong people, playing into the hands of traffickers who teach victims that police are not to be trusted.

In addition to representing an important change in perspective, this initiative is particularly encouraging for other reasons. First, it is a multidisciplinary and comprehensive approach to sex trafficking, as demonstrated by the judges, five elected district attorneys and more than a dozen service providers who were present for the announcement made by New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. It is also a comprehensive approach with specially trained judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and court staff who can understand and effectively address the complexity of trafficking cases before them.

Second, this approach reflects the reality that trafficking victims experience a constellation of injuries and traumas unique to them. Victims of sex trafficking often have been subjected to myriad physical, psychological and sexual abuses. As such, they may suffer from a host of injuries requiring medical care, substance abuse treatment, therapeutic treatment and other long-term services. Despite the best of intentions, victims are ill-served by haphazardly assigning them services designed for other populations or that only address one of their injuries.

Third, the initiative reconciles ­silolike treatment of trafficking victims. New York has been at the forefront in its treatment of child sex-trafficking victims. It understands that when an adult has sexual contact with a child, the adult is the offender and the child is a victim of sexual abuse, regardless of whether money is exchanged. Since 2008, New York has required that anyone younger than age 18 arrested for prostitution be treated not as a criminal but as a sexually exploited child in need of service. Such a legal protection was groundbreaking. However, recognition of that reality disappeared after age 18, with the law treating victims as though they were suddenly free, independent beings. This structure, although understandable, ignores the reality that many victims were driven into prostitution as children and remain under the control of a trafficker.


Although not all cases are the same, this initiative recognizes that for many involved in prostitution these offenses are part of a continuum of years of abuse and exploitation. Therefore, the New York initiative astutely requires courts to determine which defendants who appear before its courts fall into this category.

Although there is much to celebrate in this initiative, there is some room for caution. The details will need to be evaluated for issues such as the standard to determine which individuals are victims and which are not; how the system will address individuals who opt into the program only to recruit, intimidate or gather information about others for their traffickers, as happens today in some facilities; how the system will address victims who are forced by traffickers to commit crimes other than prostitution; or whether the program is open to victims who have recruited others in the past. Furthermore, sex-trafficking victims are only a subset of human-trafficking victims. The initiative does not address the often overlooked but equally traumatized segment of labor-trafficking victims.

A successful anti-trafficking program must address both the supply and demand side of trafficking. Although the court announced a commitment to prosecuting traffickers, this commitment must translate into action. It means not only prosecuting traffickers known colloquially as “pimps” but also those who buy other human beings for sex. While the initiative is encouraging, this paradigm shift will not be complete until it shifts for all the actors involved. Society must do more than recognize the victims as victims; it must now honestly recognize the perpetrators as well — and they are not called “johns” and “pimps.” They are called human traffickers.

Mary G. Leary, a professor at Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law, is a former state and federal prosecutor.