Vice: Special Prostitution Courts and the Myth of ‘Rescuing’ Sex Workers

“Once they get you, they are always going to get you,” Love* told me this November at a greasy spoon in the Bronx. “The sad thing is that nobody ever stands up there and fights them.”

Love is a 48-year-old black woman. She has high cheekbones, and her full lips smirk easily, especially when she hears something dumb. For several years, Love did sex work in Hunts Point, the Bronx red-light district made famous by the HBO documentary Hookers at the Point. Needing rent money, and sick of welfare’s bureaucracy, Love went out one night with a friend hoping to make some cash. They took precautions: Love’s friend kept an eye on her from the next block and wrote down the license-plate numbers of cars that picked her up. That night Love made $400.

Police arrested her repeatedly, but she kept working. She liked the money, and she had a daughter to support.

In 2009, however, Love was raped while working. The attack left her with post-traumatic stress disorder. With the help of social services organizations, Love quit sex work and started taking classes to become a surgical technician.

But she kept in touch with some of her Hunts Point friends, especially Sandra,* whom she considered a second mother. Then, this summer, Sandra stopped answering her phone. Fearing the worst, Love decided to track her down.

In Hunts Point, the two friends caught up, hanging out on the corner of Edgewater Road and Lafayette Avenue. When a car circled the block several times, Love assumed it was an acquaintance. She waved.

“Hop in,” the man in the car demanded. “I’ve got thirty dollars…”

“OK, officer, have a nice day,” Love shot back. As she walked away, the man shouted, “You must be a cop. You’re calling me a cop.”

Love forgot the man, until, as she walked back to the train station, three police officers swarmed her. They arrested Love for prostitution.

Love sat handcuffed in a sweltering, pitch-dark police van. For two hours, police drove around Hunts Point, looking for enough “bodies” to justify a trip back to Central Booking. Confused and furious, Love spent the night in a cell—missing a day of classes. The whole process took 24 hours.

The court system Love found herself in this year was supposed to be different from the one she’d dealt with during her previous prostitution arrests.

New York State’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs) are the first of their kind in the nation. Launched with great fanfare in September 2013, these courts redefined prostitutes as trafficking victims rather than criminals.

“Human trafficking is… a form of modern-day slavery that we simply cannot tolerate in a civilized society,” Judge Jonathan Lippman, the court’s creator, said at a press conference announcing the formation of the special courts. “We now recognize that the vast majority of individuals charged with prostitution offenses are commercially exploited or at risk of exploitation. By offering vital services instead of punishment to these defendants, the Human Trafficking Intervention Initiative will act to transform and save lives—and, in turn, enable law enforcement to identify, investigate, and punish the traffickers.”

Despite the claims of reformers like Judge Lippman, HTICs are as controlling as any other court. Prostitutes might be called victims, but they’re still arrested, still handcuffed, and still held in cages. The only difference is that they’re now in a system that doesn’t distinguish between workers and trafficked people. To the courts, anyone who’s been arrested for sex work is raw material, incapable of making his or her own choices. Those like Love, who did sex work out of financial necessity, before leaving of her own volition, might as well not exist.

At HTICs, district attorneys offer most defendants the option of attending six sessions with intervention programs. If they complete the sessions, they are eligible for an ACD (Adjournment for Contemplation of Dismissal). If they’re not rearrested for six months their original charges are dismissed. This could be a blessing for those on their first arrest.

But Love had many arrests behind her.

“The prosecution figured that because she had prior prostitution convictions, she must be guilty this time too,” Zoe Root, the dedicated HTIC attorney for the Bronx Defenders, the office that represented Love at trial, told me. The prosecutor was unwilling to make Love an offer of anything less than a plea to the top charge and seven days of sessions with Bronx Community Solutions.

Love was baffled. “I’ve been working in the medical field for over ten years,” she told me. “Due to circumstances and a bad relationship, I ended up in the street. But I just completed school. I’ve completed programs you’re offering… I’m forty-eight years old. I don’t have a drug habit. What are you offering me?” She would take her case to trial.


* Name has been changed.

By Molly Crabapple

Read the complete, original article here.