Queens Criminal Court Judge Toko Serita addresses the National Summit on Human Trafficking and the State Courts on Thursday.
Queens Criminal Court Judge Toko Serita addresses the National Summit on Human Trafficking and the State Courts on Thursday. (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

While awareness of human trafficking by the courts and the public has grown in recent years, panelists and guests at a two-day national summit held in Manhattan Thursday agreed there is work to be done to change the way the justice system treats sex trafficking victims.

The summit, which focused on state courts’ approaches to human trafficking, drew more than 300 judges, court administrators and other officials from 46 states, the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said human trafficking is estimated to be a billion-dollar industry with 20 million victims worldwide. He said the typical age of entry for prostitutes is between 12 and 14 and that about 80 percent of victims are in the United States.

“We have come to recognize that the vast majority of children or adults who are charged with prostitution are commercially exploited,” Lippman said. “Prostitution is not a profession of choice, period.”

Panelists said that while many local jurisdictions have made progress toward identifying human trafficking victims and steering them toward social services, some jurisdictions still treat them—particularly prostitutes—as criminals. They also said not enough attention has been paid to prosecuting traffickers and people who purchase services from prostitutes.

“As long as we’re focusing on those who are engaged in prostitution, as opposed to the johns and the pimps, I think we’re fundamentally missing the point,” said William Silverman, a Proskauer Rose partner who leads the firm’s pro bono program and who has represented human trafficking victims.

Silverman presented data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services showing that, in 2013, there were 4,690 total prostitution-related arrests in New York, of which 32 were arrests for sex trafficking as defined by Penal Law §30.34 and more than 1,500 were for patronizing a prostitute under Penal Law §§230.04 and 230.05.

New York’s first human trafficking intervention court was established in Queens in 2004. Since then, intervention parts have opened in the four other boroughs of New York City as well as Buffalo, Long Island, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers.

Since the formation of the Queens intervention court, the courts have handled a combined 6,000 cases, said Queens Criminal Court Judge Toko Serita, who presides over the part.

“As long as people are being arrested for prostitution and you know there’s a possibility that they are victims of trafficking, that means the courts can take a leadership role on doing something about human trafficking,” she said.

Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at New York’s Sanctuary for Families, who was a panelist, said that while New York’s court system has been a leader in addressing human trafficking, more attention must be paid to how police officers treat victims during arrests.

“Too many police officers see people in prostitution as criminals, as subhuman,” Liedholdt said in an interview. “They are treated worse than second-class citizens.”

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that his office has partnered with Facebook to use data and analytics to identify human trafficking victims in online advertisements for commercial sex.

Schneiderman said his office will work with the social media giant to develop algorithms and find patterns such as the language used in ads, phone numbers and images. He said his office will also work to identify missing children who are featured in ads. “We need more tools to capture traffickers as they increasingly turn to the Internet to perpetrate their crimes,” he said.

Earlier this year, Schneiderman’s office began a collaboration with Facebook in which Amber Alerts are sent to the news feeds of Facebook users within the targeted search area for a missing child.

The summit was jointly organized by the State Justice Institute, the Office of Court Administration, the New York State Bar Association, the Conference of Chief Judges, the Conference of State Court Administrators and the National Center for State Courts.

Lippman serves on the board of directors for the State Justice Institute, which was established in 1984 by federal law and which provided grant funding to hold the summit.

Cindy McCain, co-chair of the Arizona Human Trafficking Council and the wife of U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, was also scheduled to speak at the event, which continues Friday.