By Caroline Lewis
July 1, 2019
In 2018, the city’s five trafficking courts saw fewer than half the cases they did at their peak capacity in 2014, with the Queens court, which is the busiest, seeing a steep drop in cases in the last two years, according to court data. With a growing number of city and state elected officials joining advocates in calling for an end to prostitution-related arrests and legislation pending at the state level to fully decriminalize sex work (or at least rein in discriminatory policing), those numbers could drop further. Tiffany Cabán, who could become the next Queens District Attorney after declaring victory in the still officially undecided primary last week, has said she would stop prosecuting sex workers as well as customers and promoters, aligning her with Decrim NY.
“As long as the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts are going to be in operation, of course, we are interested in being there and offering services,” says Aya Tasaki, manager of advocacy and policy at Womankind, a group that provides resources such as legal assistance, emergency housing, and economic empowerment programming, primarily to Asian victims of labor and sex trafficking. But she argues that resources poured into the criminal justice system undermine the services offered by her organization (which is a member of Decrim NY).
“With the clients who come through the courts, just so much of it is dealing with the trauma of arrest. It takes a long time to get to what they actually need support for, which is their exploitation,” Tasaki says.
Still, she acknowledges, “You can’t just set up a center and say, ‘If you identify as a trafficking victim, you go here.’ There does need to be a lot of investment in holding space for directly impacted people and people doing this work a long time to come together and hammer out some details.”
Safe Horizon, another organization that serves labor and sex trafficking victims, doesn’t take a position on decriminalization but already refuses to work with the trafficking courts, instead casting a wide net for referrals. “A victim should not have to be arrested in order to be connected to services,” says Anita Teekah, senior director of the Anti-Trafficking Program at Safe Horizon. Yet Safe Horizon doesn’t eschew working with law enforcement. The organization provides training on how to recognize signs of trafficking to the NYPD, medical providers, nonprofits, and government agencies, including ICE. “As we’re doing trainings we get referrals from those sources,” says Teekah. “The next big one we’re doing is shelters.”
Ultimately, the goal should be to ensure that people in the sex trades have a seat at the table when crafting new policies, including alternatives to the trafficking courts, says Cecilia Gentili, a former sex worker who is a member of the Decrim NY steering committee. Decrim NY is currently in talks about conducting an independent needs assessment of people in the sex trades that could inform the services the city funds moving forward.
“There’s a long history of non-sex workers making decisions for sex workers and this is a great opportunity to craft those services from what people in the community say they need,” Gentili said.
Asked about the concerns some anti-trafficking groups have raised about the challenges involved in reaching people who wouldn’t be able to access services voluntarily, Gentili counters, “First you should ask them what happened to Layleen Polanco, who was sent to their intervention court and ended up dead in solitary confinement on Rikers Island.”
But she then softens her approach. “I really support their work,” says Gentili, who says she was trafficked at one point. “It is noble and necessary because nobody wants people to be trafficked.” Given that “we are all smart and have great intentions,” she adds, “I’m sure we can all find ways to find victims of trafficking and help them” without criminalizing them.