By 9:30 a.m. on a Friday, the defendants start filing into the fluorescent-lit hallway outside Judge Toko Serita’s courtroom in Queens Criminal Court in Kew Gardens, checking anxiously for their names on a sheet of paper behind glass. Many of the women are Chinese and find that their names, typed in English, are misspelled.
In the hallway, they speak mostly in Mandarin, in accents from across China. Some speak Korean. They meet with their court-appointed lawyers in the hallway, often helped by an interpreter born in Fujian Province and hired by the city courts. A snazzy dresser, the interpreter bounces from one defendant to the next; he has found himself adding terms to his usual vocabulary: prostitution (“maiyin”), illegal massage (“feifa anmo”), unlicensed massage (“wuzheng anmo”).
This is the Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens, which is marking its 10th anniversary next month, and which serves as a model for astatewide 11-court program that began last year. The intention is to change the legal conversation around the multibillion-dollar sex trade by redefining the women in it as victims instead of criminals. Most are offered a deal: Take part in a set number of counseling sessions, usually five or six, and the charges will be dismissed and the record sealed.
After 13 months, the five New York City courts are still a work in progress, their success tracked more in individual stories than statistics.
“This court is not devised to solve the problems of trafficking,” Judge Serita said of the program, “but to address one of the unfortunate byproducts, which is the arrest of these defendants on prostitution charges.”
All defendants in the specialized courts are presumed to be victims at risk, the first of many assumptions made, in part, because of the silence surrounding sex trafficking. That silence also makes it tougher to shift social mores. Not only do the police and the justice system still treat prostitution as a crime, but the women themselves, most undocumented, often don’t define themselves as having been trafficked — whether out of fear, shame or choice.
New York State’s progressive anti-trafficking law has no definition of a victim, but describes the coercive tactics a trafficker uses. These include fraud, physical injury, withholding or destroying immigration documents and exploiting debt.
At no point in the proceedings does the judge, the prosecutor or the defense lawyer ask if the defendants have been trafficked; nor is there a quid pro quo to give up a trafficker. It is rare, but the hope is that the women, perhaps after working with counselors, will feel comfortable describing the conditions that led them to prostitution.
“It’s a trigger mechanism to establish contact between individuals and service providers,” Judge Serita said of the court. “We know that five sessions is not necessarily going to change some people’s lives, but if they can establish meaningful contact with somebody else that can be used in the future, that’s what we’re hoping for.”
Inside the courtroom, the drama may seem perfunctory. The defendants have been charged with prostitution or loitering with intent to engage in prostitution, both misdemeanors. After arraignment, Kimberly Affronti, the assistant district attorney who has been the Queens court’s only prosecutor since its inception in 2004, decides what to offer the defendants after discussing options with their lawyers.
“This court is a lot more nonadversarial than other courts,” Ms. Affronti said. “It’s a team effort.”
For a first offense, five counseling sessions is the primary option. A defendant can also plead guilty to disorderly conduct; a small percentage of clients choose to fight their charges and get sent to an all-purpose court.
During an initial appearance, Judge Serita will refer the defendant to one of the court-approved counseling organizations. Upon completion of the sessions, she will grant an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, which means that if the defendant stays out of trouble for up to six months, the record will be sealed. Over the past year, her court has issued 398 such adjournments out of 639 cases heard.
The Queens court has changed significantly in the decade since Judge Fernando M. Camacho founded it. Dismayed at seeing the same American-born teenage girls reappearing in his court for prostitution, Judge Camacho said he wanted to break the cycle by offering them alternatives to a criminal record or incarceration.
Now, a majority of the defendants who sit in the worn walnut benches are either Latin American women or, even more often, older, undocumented immigrants from Asia, ranging in age from 30 to 50. According to statistics Judge Serita’s court has kept, Asian defendants represented 27 percent of the cases in 2010. In 2014, they have made up 40 percent.
If Judge Serita, 53, seems sensitive on the bench to the plight of new immigrants, perhaps it is because she, too, was an immigrant, coming to this country with her parents as a 5-year-old from Sapporo, Japan. As an only child attending elementary school in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, in the late 1960s, she would bring the lunch her father, an artist, packed for her in a bento box. “I used to get teased all the time,” she said.
She turned an inclination for public service into work as a Legal Aid appellate lawyer and was appointed to the bench by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2005, becoming the first Japanese-American judge in the state court.
On Fridays, Judge Serita usually hears more than 40 cases in three hours. “How are you today?” she asks each of the women, inquiring whether they take English classes and praising their progress. Several defendants said they noticed less that she was an Asian woman and more that she had a warm demeanor. On other days, she presides over the drug treatment andmental health courts in Queens.
The trafficking court, she acknowledged, is a Catch-22: For people to feel less like criminals, they must first go through the criminal justice system.
Leigh Latimer, the Legal Aid Society lawyer assigned to Judge Serita’s court, agreed. “There is a somewhat more recent view that clients are potentially victims, but we’re still arresting them at a very rapid pace,” she said. “We’re trying to solve their problems through being arrested, which is not an affirming process.”
Judge Serita has tried to offset that by assembling a large network of counselors and court advocates. Judge Camacho originally partnered with Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, and Judge Serita has added a half-dozen more, including two that work with Asian women: Restore NYCand New York Asian Women’s Center. On Fridays, counselors from those groups stand with clipboards outside the courtroom, waiting to sign women up.
Moving in and out of the courtroom is Paul Puma, 40, the head court officer for the trafficking court. He, too, must make assumptions.
“When at any time a defendant comes in escorted by a male, I just ask the male to step outside,” Mr. Puma said, adding: “Nine times out of 10, I know I am speaking to their handler, or whatever you want to call them.
“I don’t want them in the court,” Mr. Puma continued. “I want the women free to be able to take advantage of the services this court offers. I don’t have a legal right to stop them from coming in there. But I tell them, ‘I’ll let the judge and the prosecutor know that if you insist on being here for this young lady, they’re going to want to know who you are.’ ”
One Mandarin-speaking man who waited outside seemed less than encouraging about the counseling sessions his female friend would be attending.
“As far as I’m concerned,” he said in Mandarin, “this is just propaganda.” He would not give his name.
On several Fridays, nearly a dozen women said during interviews in Mandarin that they did not feel like trafficking victims, but victims of the police. The women all spoke on the condition of anonymity because their cases were still pending.
“My name has been tarnished,” said one woman, who was upset that her case was “lumped with all those others.” She denied performing a sex act, but the police report contradicted that, Ms. Affronti said.
Another woman explained that she was arrested at 4 a.m. on her sixth day of work. She and her sister, who quit after the second day because she sensed “something was not right,” owed more than $80,000 to friends and family members who raised the money for them to come to the United States from Fuzhou.
That type of pressure to pay back smuggling agents — often with interest as high as 12 percent — is considered “debt bondage.” It is a more subtle condition of human trafficking, but is pervasive in New York’s Asian communities, lawyers say.
“Of course we have to borrow,” said the sister who was not arrested. “Who has that kind of money?”
The women who accept the court’s deal attend full-day group counseling sessions once a week; they often begin the day with yoga, and then learn about the court process, their rights and prostitution laws.
X. — who asked to be identified only by her first initial because she had not told her family in China she had worked as a prostitute — told a common story of debt bondage. Last November, she owed $60,000 to the travel agent who arranged for her entry to the United States. Because she had to pay $500 for her airport pickup, she soon began running out of money.
She could not find a job without work papers, and by the time she started looking through the classifieds of World Journal, a popular Chinese-language newspaper, she was desperate.
The section is full of ads for so-called authentic massage — “tuina” — and there are plenty of questionable ones, too, like those looking for a “spicy little sister” or “a woman tender and warm.” One ad seeking massage workers promised $500 daily; another, “tens of thousands” for a month.
She was 42, alone and broke; she agreed to work at the first place that was hiring.
It was not until her new boss drove her to the job — in a Queens house — that first day, she said, that he told her she would be performing sexual services instead of massages. “All the women like you who come here and don’t have friends to help them — they all do it,” he told her.
One month later, she was arrested and felt humiliated. But after she appeared before Judge Serita and completed the counseling sessions, the charges were dropped and her case was sealed.
Ms. Latimer, the Legal Aid lawyer, put X. in touch with Sanctuary for Families, an organization helping victims of sex trafficking and domestic violence; Sanctuary is now working on a visa application for her and arranges medical appointments for her problems incurred during that dark month last fall.
“I recognize that I took the wrong path,” X. said in Mandarin in an interview recently, interpreted by Rosie Wang, 26, a legal fellow at Sanctuary and recent graduate of Columbia Law School.
“But,” X. continued, “I also think that if I didn’t, and these bad things didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be connected to so many people who have helped me so much.”
Despite the court’s innovative ambitions, it hasn’t always been able to meet the day-to-day needs of the women whom it aims to help. As the number of Asian defendants has surged in Queens, the private counseling agencies, already short of money, have had trouble keeping pace. Over the summer, defendants faced waits of up to six weeks to begin their court-mandated counseling with the New York Asian Women’s Center or Restore NYC. Both organizations said recently that there currently were no waits.
Danielle Sennett, a public defender with Queens Law Associates who is assigned to the court, said any delay could make it more difficult for clients to get work and could keep them stuck, living in danger. “Some women who are in high-risk situations are not being served,” Ms. Sennett said.
The courts do not keep a record of recidivism, although if women are rearrested, they often return to fulfill more counseling sessions. Despite efforts by the New York Police Department’s vice enforcement squad, advocates say the message has not always filtered to the precinct level to treat women as victims when arresting them.
So far this year, the Police Department recorded 686 arrests in Queens on misdemeanor charges of prostitution and loitering, including 149 in the 109th Precinct, covering Flushing, which is where most of the massage parlors in the borough operate.
Queens Criminal Court has only 15 cases pending for trafficking, a felony that is tried in a separate courtroom, deliberately far from Judge Serita’s court.
“In a system that prioritizes a high volume of low-level arrests, you still have to ask: ‘Who is getting arrested?’ ” said Kate Mogulescu, the supervising lawyer of the Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project for the Legal Aid Society in New York. “What’s the endgame?”
The New York State chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, acknowledged that “the focus should be on the demand, on the traffickers and the buyers.” But he added: “The reality is we don’t make decisions as to who gets arrested, and we want to assure that these victims get the assistance that they need and ultimately get out of ‘the life.’ ”
M., 40, who asked to be identified only by her first initial because she is undocumented, is one of those trying to get out. Arrested on a prostitution charge in Queens in May, she went through the counseling program at the New York Asian Women’s Center; when it was over, the group told her to call if she ever ran into trouble again.
M. said she had been working at what she thought was a legitimate Manhattan massage parlor in September when her bosses forced her to perform commercial sex. They beat her and threatened her life if she did not continue, she said. Desperate, she called the Women’s Center, which swiftly connected her with Sanctuary for legal help.
Ms. Wang, who came to this country from Chengdu when she was 1 and jokes that she speaks Mandarin with an American accent, met with M.
Gradually, M. felt comfortable telling her of the abuse and became emboldened by Sanctuary’s support. “After the incident happened where I was trafficked, I was feeling very lost,” M. said in an interview, with Ms. Wang interpreting. “But now I feel like I have the courage to talk to people about it, including law enforcement.”
Like many Chinese immigrants who settle in Flushing, M. had applied for political asylum when she arrived. The lawyer she approached said it would cost $3,500 and demanded $500 upfront, which she paid. His office has since closed.
Sanctuary explained to her and many other clients that political asylum is rarely granted and applying for it risks deportation. Instead, women like M. are better off applying for a T Visa, reserved for victims of trafficking, said Melissa Brennan, Sanctuary’s senior staff lawyer in Queens. In July, Ms. Brennan created a free project involving seven New York law firms that have since given 34 immigration consultations. The program is now helping nine clients, including M., to apply for legal status.
“Launching this project, I never expected to see the level of disclosure that we have,” Ms. Brennan said. Six women have told Ms. Wang that they were victims, and Sanctuary is following other cases of potential trafficking.
In a court that is based on assumptions, success can be hard to define. Or it can come splashing down in grateful tears.
“I just don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else,” M. said.