While criminal justice professionals argue that human trafficking courts are a humane alternative to strategies aimed at enforcing laws against prostitution, they can end up re-victimizing the people such courts are meant to help, says a critic writing in The New Republic.
Melissa Gira Grant, a staff writer at The New Republic and the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, argues the courts can reflect the same racial profiling employed by police in other arrests.
“These courts and the marketing behind them are a perfect example of how what’s called ‘innovation’ in criminal justice can perpetuate the same injustices that allegedly inspired reform in the first place,” she wrote.
“The human trafficking courts do this with a carceral feminist twist—as if the problem facing women pushed into the criminal justice system is that police, prisons, and prosecutors haven’t yet learned how to liberate them while also arresting them.”
The New Republic article cites a study released in 2014 by the Red Umbrella Project (RedUP), a peer-led organization of people engaged in the sex trades, that found people funneled into Brooklyn and Queens courts mirror the same disproportionate racial policing found in other areas: 69 percent of defendants facing prostitution charges in Brooklyn were black, and in Queens, 58 percent were East Asian.
Sex workers have been arguing that prostitution “crackdowns” merely endanger them by leaving them exposed to violence and exploitation.
The courts have already come under increasing criticism that they are not living up to their promise. A lack of data or measurable goals has made it difficult to determine if the approach works.
New York does not track what happens to the people who pass through the system, or how often they return. One counseling provider, Womankind, left the program this year after deciding it was easier to build trust outside of the court system.
The New York trafficking courts were considered innovative by criminal justice professionals when they were established six years ago. They send people to counseling sessions to help them leave the multibillion-dollar sex trade while dismissing charges and sealing their records.
But according to Grant, defendants, their attorneys, and some service providers themselves have pointed out the bitter irony that the same people the courts regard as victims of a crime are judged as rehabilitated — based not on their own self-directed goals, but on whether police arrest them again in the future.
Julie Xu, a volunteer organizer, told Grant, “The issue with the courts is that it incentivizes individuals, whether trafficked or not, to plea to prostitution charges in exchange for much-needed services.”
A report on the trafficking courts produced by Yale’s Global Health Justice Partnership GHJP) echoed RedUP’s conclusions that the courts not only harmed the people they claimed to help but failed to live up to their promises, Grant said.
“They don’t actually know enough about what they are doing to say if they are succeeding or failing,” Alice Miller, co-director of the GHJP and lead contributor to the report, told Grant after the report was released.
“As long as over-policing of the poor along lines of race and gender, coupled with criminalization of buying and selling sex, are the context in which these courts operate,” the GHJP researchers concluded, “they cannot stop the revolving door of criminalization.”
TCR intern Nia Morton contributed to this summary.