In the late 1980s, I was a judge on the New York City Criminal Court bench. Once a day, the women accused of prostitution would file in for their arraignments. "We're bringing in the prostitutes now," the court clerks would snicker, a contemptuous conflation of identity with crime that I never heard applied to men accused of murder, theft, or other criminal acts.
The women I saw were very young, often runaways, and many shared histories of sexual abuse. During the arraignments, a trickle of men would fill the back of the courtroom -- over time I understood they were pimps, present to post bail for the women under their control and send them back out to work on the street.
While in that courtroom, I came to two realizations: For these women, prostitution was not a choice, but an act of necessity and coercion -- sex trafficking. And because sex trafficking is an often misunderstood issue driven by complex criminal networks of pimps and johns, an effective response by government and law enforcement would be necessary to curtail the crime.
In the past few years, I witnessed tremendous changes in how our community understands and responds to sex trafficking. New York State in particular has been a leader in developing policies to combat its harmful effects.
No longer are children under the age of 16 subject to prosecution for prostitution -- thanks to New York's landmark Safe Harbor Law, the first of its kind when it was passed in 2008, we now recognize that children in prostitution are not criminals, but victims. More recently, the second Safe Harbor act extended additional protections to 16- and 17-year-olds.
No longer are women who have been charged with prostitution, many of whom were brought in to the life when they were too young to consent to sex with an adult, criminalized and re-victimized by the system. In the fall of 2013, New York announced the creation of the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, an integrated court model that provides social services and legal counsel, rather than jail time, to help survivors build lives free from abuse and exploitation.
The strides forward have been tremendous -- but policies are rarely perfect, and over the course of time gaps have appeared. That is why anti-trafficking advocates in New York have coalesced around the proposed Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act (TVPJA).
The TVPJA would allow prosecutors to strengthen cases against traffickers by using wiretaps. It would remove deeply stigmatizing language from our criminal code that identifies individuals charged with prostitution as "prostitutes." It would establish sex trafficking as an affirmative defense to prostitution, encouraging defense counsel to bring trafficking concerns to the attention of prosecutors and courts. And critically, it would align the penalties with buying sex from a minor with the penalties for statutory rape, thus recognizing that exploiting a child for sex is child abuse.
Passing the TVPJA would guarantee the safety of so many women, men and children in New York, and bring us closer to eliminating the scourge of sex trafficking from our community. And yet, Albany gridlock has, per usual, held up our New York State legislators from passing the bill.
Thinking back to my early days on the bench, I am proud of how far we have come. From law enforcement to grassroots coalitions, survivors, activists and service providers, so many have galvanized around this issue and, along the way, drawn in critical research, funds and media attention. Now our New York State legislators have a responsibility to do their part and be leaders in ending sex trafficking -- by transcending petty politics and passing the TVPJA.