Courts Fail Black Sex Trafficking Victims, Say Advocates

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The rising number of incarcerated women has focused more attention on the need for trauma-informed services for domestic abuse and trafficking victims, New York City judges and advocates told a webinar organized by Project SAFE in partnership with The Center for Court Innovation Thursday.

Many women passing through the criminal justice system are victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, rather than being convicted criminals—but courts often aggravate the harm already done to them, said Toko Serita, a judge at the Queens (NY) Misdemeanor Treatment Court.

“The courts are further exploiting their victimization,” Serita said. “There’s something wrong with seeing women in court who shouldn’t be there in the first place because they were forced into prostitution.”

The webinar, titled “Specifying the Needs of Justice-Involved Black Women,” noted that a substantial number of those caught in the prison pipeline are women of color, and many are victims of domestic violence or human trafficking.

Speakers detailed the importance of intervention courts, such as human trafficking courts, drug courts and mental health courts, which provide treatment and assistance for women all over New York City.

Black women represent 30 percent of all incarcerated women in the US, although they represent 13 percent of the female population, according to research.

They are also among the nation’s most vulnerable population. Those found working for massage parlors, escort services, and strip clubs are more likely to be arrested for prostitution and loitering–even though many are victims of human trafficking, the webinar was told.

In 2013, then New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman spearheaded efforts to address the problem of criminalizing abuse victims by creating eight new human trafficking courts, in addition to three working courts in Queens, which included judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys who were informed about the dynamics of sex trafficking and could offer services to victims.

These courts refer victims to social services, vocational and educational training, domestic violence and sexual assault services, and substance abuse and mental health treatment centers.

Victims who comply with the mandated services have the opportunity to receive non-criminal dispositions or dismissal of their case.

“This has been a quite successful model,” said Judge Serita, who said her court now hears 600 cases a year.

However, it can be difficult to measure the success of human trafficking courts: Often, victims return to their pimp or former abuser.

Compared to drug courts, which have been proven to reduce recidivism, it may take a woman between seven and eight attempts before she leaves her abuser, said Afua Addo, a coordinator for Gender and Justice Initiatives.

“When someone is being trafficked, you’ll see them re-arrested a number of times because they don’t have a choice in what they’re doing,” Judge Serita responded.

“They might be under the control of a pimp and not have many resources. I have never put anyone in jail because they were arrested for another prostitution charge.”

When it comes to trafficking and sex abuse, there is never a “perfect victim,” the webinar, which was held during “Human Trafficking Awareness Month,” was told.

See also: The Link Between Opioid Abuse and Sex Trafficking

The unique circumstances each individual faces makes it difficult to provide a uniform response from the courts.

“It’s more how can we help this person so she doesn’t get arrested again and can leave her trafficker,” said Serita.

Significantly, trafficking victims are always in recovery from traumatic experiences, and understanding how trauma is perceived can help the criminal justice system move forward with trauma informed care, she continued.

Domestic violence is another form of trauma that can lead to incarceration, and 80 percent of black women in prison have been abused by a husband or loved one, reported the webinar.

Largely, the victimization of women reflects the issue of how women are valued in society, noted Addo.

“It’s hard to acknowledge black women as victims in need of care and support because of systemic racism and sexism.”

Childhood abuse also plays a role in the pipeline to prison.

“Youth who experience childhood trauma and neglect are 59 percent more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 29 percent more likely to be arrested as an adult and more likely to commit violent crime,” according to Project SAFE.

“And girls often are on the receiving end of abuse and neglect, twice the amount as boys.”

The most important thing we can offer victims of abuse is an open door, Addo said.

“You can’t force someone to leave their abuser—but you can provide an open door.”

Editor’s Note: Anyone who wishes to access the full recording of the Webinar “Specifying the Needs of Justice-Involved Black Women” should contact Mara Chin Loy at

Megan Hadley is a staff writer at The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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