Jeff Farrell: Human trafficking woes need creative fix

Sep. 29, 2013 @ 11:54 PM

New York state courts are taking an innovative step in dealing with human trafficking — they’re going to start treating most prostitutes as victims of trafficking, rather than as criminals.

Instead of facing jail time, they’ll have the chance to be linked with social programs that could help them go to school, get a job, overcome addiction and find a new path for their lives. The program is similar in some ways to drug courts.

It’s believed to be the first time this has been tried, at least in a statewide initiative. After attending a conference on the problem a few years ago in Knoxville, I can say that it seems overdue.

Jonathan Lippman, chief judge for the state, explained it like this, according to The New York Times: “Human trafficking is a crime that inflicts terrible harm on the most vulnerable members of society: victims of abuse, the poor, children, runaways, immigrants. It is in every sense a form of modern-day slavery. We cannot tolerate this practice in a civilized society, nor can we afford to let victims of trafficking slip between the cracks of our justice system.”

It strikes me that “modern-day slavery” probably sounds like a stretch to a lot of regular people.

For people who don’t have to give it much thought, maybe it’s easy to think of prostitutes as women who love sex and know they can make money from it. And I’m sure there are some like that.

But the ugly secret is, there are a lot of women out there who didn’t volunteer to get into the business. According to NBC News, Lippman has also said that the typical age of entry into prostitution in the U.S. is 12 to 14. Does that sound like they’re volunteering?

They’re indoctrinated into that world by people looking to prey on the vulnerable — they find runaways, recruit immigrants by promising legitimate work in the U.S. or find other vulnerabilities to exploit.

It’s not a far-off, “big city” problem, either. A few years ago, a jury in Nashville convicted a woman for sex trafficking involving underage girls. One of the victims was a 17-year-old runaway whom the woman promised to help. She proceeded to lead the girl into a life of addiction and prostitution.

The woman operated in Pigeon Forge as well as Nashville.

That shows the other side to another assumption I know people make about prostitutes: That when they see one who’s an obvious drug addict, it means those people got themselves addicted and then chose the profession to pay for the habit.

I don’t doubt there are adults who made those choices. I also don’t question that a lot of them could use help to find a better life, if they’re willing to take it. Some won’t.

But there are people — no doubt mostly women, but men, too — who were started into that path, not by their own adult choices, but by people who exploited them starting when they were very young.

They deserve a second chance.

Tennessee has recently passed a number of laws addressing some of these same issues. I hope our legislators pay attention to the new initiative in New York.