Formerly known as inMotion, Inc.

New York Law Journal masthead

The Back Page logo

April 6, 2007

Advocates push for state
anti-tafficking law

By Thomas Adcock

IN A CLOSED-door meeting in Brooklyn on Wednesday, lawyers from Governor Eliot Spitzer's office met for the third time this year with activists in the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition and members of the District Attorneys Association of New York to discuss details of draft legislation calling for serious criminal sanctions against those who  enlist others into the commercial sex industry. The draft bills also call for legal, medical and other means of assistance to prostitution's principal victims: women and girls.

Norma Ramos, executive director of the Coalition
Against Trafficking in Women, speaks yesterday
at a rally at Foley Square.

State law is required, according to activists and prosecutors, because the federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, which defines and criminalizes the commercial trade of human beings for labor or sexual service by way of "force, fraud or coercion" is designed to go after well-organized, cross-border prostitution rings.

"With a state law, you can go after one person," said Catherine J. Douglass, an attorney and executive director of the legal service agency inMotion, one of seven advocacy groups constituting the Anti-Trafficking Coalition. "A cop on the beat needs a state law."

Often, according to Taina Bien-Aimé, "people supposedly in the know, even D.A.s and people in the state Assembly and Senate," point to rape and kidnapping laws. But Ms. Bien- Aimé, an attorney and executive director of Equality Now, argues that those laws do not address traffickers, who supply forced labor for brothels and who currently face only misdemeanor charges when, or if, arrested.

 "Prostitution is generally seen as a crime of moral turpitude in which women should be punished," said Ms. Bien-Aimé, whose organization is also part of the coalition. "What that does is legitimize the industry of prostitution. We need to change the paradigm. An ambitious new statute is a start, but this is going to require a huge public education effort, too."

Dorchen Leidholdt, an attorney and director of the Center for Battered Women's Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families, likened a paradigm shift today to that which took place 25 years ago in the area of domestic violence—when "no laws were on the books, when perpetrators simply weren't arrested."

Twenty-seven other states have anti-trafficking laws, but activists say none are as comprehensive as what was under discussion Wednesday in Brooklyn. The proposed statute could be used to prosecute those who entrap women and girls for commercial sex work and/or forced labor in sweatshops, private homes, farms and other venues. It also would protect male as well as female victims from traffickers operating domestically and across borders. Ms. Douglass expects the result of negotiations to be a "model state law" for the nation.

According to a source familiar with Wednesday's negotiations, held in the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, "everybody's agreed on the general thrust, and there is a concerted effort that this is going to happen."

The source, who requested anonymity, added, "As usual, the devil is in the details."

Affirmative defense

Disagreements include the matter of affirmative defense. In a brothel raid by police, for example, a woman might avoid criminal charges of engaging in prostitution if she was determined to be working under duress.

"The D.A.s are worried that if it appeared a prostitute killed her john, for instance, she might be excused," said the source.

Rockland County District Attorney Michael E. Bongiorno confirmed such concern in an interview Tuesday.

"We've had situations where the prostitution was totally voluntary, but it's very easy to claim otherwise," said Mr. Bongiorno, president of the District Attorneys Association. "Every case depends on the facts and circumstances, and we have prosecutorial discretion in the clear case of women forced into servitude. But we want to keep our options open."

Other sticking points include precise definitions of fraud, in the case of women lured into prostitution by promises of legitimate employment, and questions of age determination in the case of sex tourism.

An anti-trafficking bill introduced last year in Albany died in the Assembly's Standing Committee on Codes. This time—notably with the election of Mr. Spitzer, who as New York's attorney general won indictments against an alleged sex tour operation—chances are seen as considerably better, particularly in view of the series of confidential, highlevel negotiations on draft legislation for potential Assembly and Senate sponsors.

"In my experience, when something's done this way it's pretty serious," said the anonymous source. "I get the impression that this is doable."

"This year, we're older and wiser and more politically savvy," said Norma Ramos, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, also a member group in the State Anti-Trafficking Coalition. "Prostitution is not the world's oldest profession, it's the world's oldest oppression. It's taken a long time, but we finally see this as a political matter." As a law school student shadowing Legal Aid Society lawyers assigned to night court arraignments, Ms. Ramos regarded women arrested for prostitution "not as criminals, but as crime victims" and today sees the real possibility of realizing the new paradigm urged by Ms. Bien-Aimé.

"We don't call them prostitutes, we call them prostituted women," said Ms. Ramos. "They're the most broken women among us. Prostitution is not a victimless crime. It's a human rights violation."

Ms. Douglass reasoned, "When a sweatshop is raided, the people forced to work there are not arrested as criminals. They need shelter, mental health counseling and other services. What's the first thing that happens when a brothel is raided? The women are all arrested. It's the sexual servitude group that has the extra burden."

The prostitution trap

Trafficking victims have waited too long! --- protest image 
Women rally yesterday for a state anti-
trafficking law at Foley Square.

According to a 1998 study published in the academic journal Feminism & Psychology, most women were in some manner forced into prostitution as girls and 90 percent would quit if they could.

Similarly, a 1999 survey published in Psychiatric Services, journal of the American Psychiatric Association, found that a substantial majority of U.S. women gravitated to prostitution after running away from homes where they were sexually abused as girls—a circumstance commonly exploited by male and female traffickers who befriend runaways, only to later betray them by forcing them into the sex industry. Virtually all U.S. women in prostitution would quit if they could, according to the study, which determined 20 as the average age of entry into commercial sex. Studies of foreign women by the U.S. State Department have shown that age to be as low as 14.

"But we really don't have reliable numbers, which vary widely from United Nations data to our own State Department," said Ms. Bien-Aimé. "We really don't have a census, or a mechanism for census."

She added, "There is something that all the studies agree on, though. Eighty percent of people trafficked are women and children, and about 70 percent of them go into the sex trade."

Since Jan. 11, members of the Anti-Trafficking Coalition have held "Albany Watch" rallies in Foley Square every Thursday at 12:30 p.m., "intended to keep up public pressure" on state legislators "to take swift action towards passing a strong anti-trafficking bill," according to fliers distributed. Other members of the coalition are My Sister's Place, Girls Education Mentoring & Services, and the National Organization for Women-NYC.

The coalition meets in the Midtown offices of Greenberg Traurig, courtesy of partner William C. Silverman, director of the firm's New York pro bono programs and a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District.

"I spent a lot of time as a prosecutor on drug cases," said Mr. Silverman. "I think of all those people I locked up for 10 to 15 years for engaging in drug transactions, then I think about how we don't have laws to use against traffickers who destroy people's lives. I have a real problem with that."

District Attorney Bongiorno said draft legislation under discussion would include stiff penalties for trafficking—a minimum Class C felony, punishable by 15 years imprisonment, ranging to a Class-B felony, punishable by 25 years behind bars.

Mr. Silverman said he is encouraged by "the people I've spoken to in the mayor's office, the governor's office and the attorney general's office who are not just giving lip service to this problem."

Typical of trafficking victims who find their way to Ms. Leidholdt's Center for Battered Women include these recent cases:

  • A woman in Moscow responded to a newspaper ad for a nanny job in New York—a position that evaporated upon her arrival.  
  •  "She had a choice of being a stripper in Newark or a 'massage therapist,'" said Ms. Leidholdt. "She was told she was in debt. Her passport was taken as security."

    Knowing no English, terrified, and hoping against hope, the Russian woman chose "massage therapy." Her hope was in vain.
  • A woman from Ukraine was put into debt bondage and forced to work in a Brooklyn grocery store. She was advised not to complain to authorities or else her children in Ukraine would be killed.
  • A Venezuelan woman whose boyfriend in Queens promised love, marriage and an au pair job fell for it all, only to learn that the boyfriend's business partner was a woman who operated a Queens brothel. On her first night in America, her passport was confiscated as "security" against debt and she was forced to submit sexually to 19 men.

    She escaped after three years in the brothel by marrying a regular customer, with whom she had two children. In a Family Court proceeding, the father was granted child custody by disclosing direct knowledge of the mother's involvement in prostitution.
Photos by Rick Kopstein / New York Law Journal