Red Umbrella Project Launch Report on New York’s Trafficking Courts

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Launched in September 2013, New York’s Human Trafficking Courts (HTICs) are the first statewide human trafficking intervention within a justice system in the United States. The courts function as a “diversion” programme by connecting those arrested for prostitution to mandated social services rather than incarceration. Defendants who complete a mandated programme can have their case dismissed and sealed, provided that they are not rearrested within six months.

The state of New York currently has 11 of such courts: in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Bronx, Staten Island, Rochester, Buffalo, Hempstead, Syracuse, Central Islip and Yonkers.

On 1st October 2014, at a free public event at Long Island University in Brooklyn, NSWP member group Red Umbrella Project (RedUP) launched their report Criminal, Victim, or Worker? based on court observations conducted by staff and volunteers between December 2013 and August 2014.


Photo: Last night's report launch. From left to right: Balder, Sur Madam, Emma Caterine, Ariel Wolf.


“Reports on sex workers by researchers specialising in criminal justice are common”, RedUP state in the report, “but as sex workers we believe that it is important for us to turn the tables and report on the criminal justice system and its impact on our community.”

The data in the report comes from observing and tracking the cases of 183 defendants in the Kings Criminal Court, Brooklyn, and 181 defendants in the Queens Criminal Court. In Brooklyn 99 percent, and in Queens 98 percent, of the defendants were women. Transgender women made up 10 percent of cases in the Queens Courts (81 percent of whom were Latina) and four percent in Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, 69 percent of defendants were Black – a disproportionately high percentage -- while in Queens, 58 percent were of East Asian descent. Nineteen percent of defendants in Brooklyn used an interpreter; 67 percent in Queens (of whom 46 percent spoke Mandarin). In some cases, interpretation services were found to be insufficient.

Documented justifications for arrest on loitering charges included the following: “The location of arrest is not a bus stop, nor an open commercial establishment, nor a house of worship” and “There was sexual type debris nearby (condom wrappers, used condoms)”. “Wearing short dress,” as an example, was documented by NYPD officers as evidence of prostitution, as was “Standing with other individuals whom I am aware have previously been arrested for prostitution-related activities.”  

Some of the report’s key findings and recommendations are as follows:


Arrest and court involvement do not end victimisation and do not address economic justice

The Human Trafficking Intervention Courts are based on the assumption that many of the defendants are victims of exploitation, rather than criminals. RedUP acknowledge that decreasing the incarceration of people charged with prostitution is a good step forward, but “as long as people who are in the sex trades by coercion, economic circumstance, or choice are “rescued” through arrest and mandated services, they will continue to be re-victimized by the police and courts.”

RedUP recommends that: “The NYPD must stop harassing and arresting people who trade sex and people they profile as trading sex.”


In Brooklyn, black people are present in the HTIC and face prostitution-related charges at a disproportionately high rate.

Black defendants in the Brooklyn courts faced 69 percent of all charges, 94 percent of loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution offense charges, and were 88 percent of the defendants who faced three or more charges.

RedUP recommends that (in light of the 2013 court ruling that the NYPD’s practice of stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional) “advocates and justice officials alike must take a closer look at whether the charge of loitering for the purposes of engaging in prostitution offence (PL 240.37) is constitutional and if the law can be made compatible with the ethical and mechanical changes in the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts.”


The short-term services that defendants are required to participate in may be helpful, but do not address the pervasive problems that defendants face.

Through conversations with service providers, RedUP learned that many service providers focus on one-to-one based psychotherapy, while others provide group therapy, art therapy, workshops, and yoga.

RedUP recommends that programmes and services to be culturally competent, held accountable to the communities they serve, and examined on their usefulness by the defendants rather than by the courts and the programme managers.

RedUP also suggest that peer advocacy and support from people with experience in the sex trades “could create a more supportive environment and a better understanding of what is happening in the courtroom.”


Photo: Graphic courtesy of RedU.

The full report is available to download here:


Source: Regional Correspondent in North America and the Caribbean