BROOKLYN (CN) - New York unveiled Human Trafficking Intervention Courts last year on a mission to help defendants break free from what its chief judge called "modern day slavery" and get treatment for prostitution-related offenses.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance spoke of the new approach these courts take Monday at the Concordia Summit, in an expansive auditorium of a Hyatt hotel near Grand Central Station. He said prosecutions in these cases treat trafficking investigations both as sex crimes and as business ones requiring financial probes.
His panel included members of Congress, an airline executive and Cindy McCain, who shared alarming estimates of a multibillion-dollar industry with hundreds of thousands of victims.
Foreign presidents, business leaders, and journalists filled the room as Vance spoke of women being "bar-coded, tattoos on their bodies, basically demonstrating proprietary ownership" by their pimps.
He said that one woman "had no other alternative in her mind to get away from her trafficker than to jump out of a sixth-floor window," referring to testimony in a recent case in Lower Manhattan. The victim in this case wound up with a shattered vertebrae, a fractured pelvis and a broken leg and arm, and her tormenter got sent to prison for 50 years to life last month.
Vance's office has since announced that he will beef up the prosecution team conducting human-trafficking investigations.
Two days after the conference, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit group of current and former sex workers reported in study that most defendants in the Brooklyn and Queens human-trafficking courts are not the sex slaves the program aimed to liberate. The Manhattan trafficking court was not included in this study.
Released Wednesday by the Red Umbrella Project (Red UP), "Criminal, Victim or Worker?" reports that police brought mostly black and Asian women into court in cases where the evidence was the skimpy clothes they wore, the condoms they carried or the reputation of the streets they walked.
Many of them were selling sex with "varying degrees of autonomy or coercion," according to the report.
Of the 183 cases that the group observed in Brooklyn, black people bore 69 percent of the prostitution charges, and constituted 94 percent of those arrested for "loitering with the purpose of engaging in prostitution," according to the study.
Brooklyn census data from 2013 found that only 31 percent of the borough's population is black.
Red UP quoted from police documents basing one arrest on wearing "very short pants with butt cheeks exposed" and another on carrying "Magnum condoms."
Such evidence might not meet the "reasonable suspicion" standard enforced in the landmark stop-and-frisk case, Floyd v. The City of the New York.
After losing this class action lawsuit in 2013, Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration dropped its appeal this year in favor of a settlement forcing police to record every street stop with body cameras and other documentation.
David Bookstaver, who heads New York City's Office of Court Administration, defended the courts in a telephone interview as a "forward-looking way of doing business."
"I think we are on the side of the angels here," he said.
The services that the courts provide, however, are not grounded in reality, the study says.
Roughly 58 percent of the defendants in the Queens court are East Asian, and their cases drag on for five or six months because there are too few Mandarin translators, the study states.
Red UP complains that the court system makes the typical defendant sign up for social services without "publicly established standards," such as "one-on-one trauma-based psychotherapy" or "group therapy, art therapy, life skills workshops, and yoga."
While these programs can provide a "helpful part of healing" for willing participants, "short term mandated assistance does not address the pervasive problems that defendants face," the study states.
The United Nations, members of Congress, activist groups and celebrities continue to treat sex-trafficking as a global scourge, but critics remain skeptical about the scale of the problem.
In 2006, the Government Accountability Office disputed the "questionable" estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked in the United States, an estimate that came from "one person who did not document all of his work."
Somaly Mam, who headed one of the leading anti-trafficking groups, resigned from her nonprofit amid reports that she fabricated her life story as a victim.
On Vance's panel Monday, Cindy McCain repeatedly asserted that sex-trafficking crimes spike during the time of the Super Bowl.
The director of the Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project of the Legal Aid Society called that notion a "myth" in a New York Times op-ed article this year.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to clarify that the Manhattan District Attorney's Office expanded its own prosecution team handling human-trafficking investigations, rather than the Human Trafficking Intervention Court system at large. The updated article also emphasizes that the Manhattan's Human Trafficking Intervention Court was not a part of the Red UP study.
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