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Young prostitutes get help, not jail, under new law

January 21, 2014
Lawmakers hope recently enacted legislation will combat sexual slavery and human trafficking in New York. Under the new law, the court system has the authority to refer 16- and 17-year-olds with prostitution offenses to the Person In Need of Supervision program instead of jail.

The legislation, (A.8071/S.5839) sponsored by Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, is part of the Trafficking Victims and Justice Act — a series of bills that seeks to prevent the exploitation of minors, hold those who traffic and patronize them accountable and provide special training for judges who oversee prostitution cases for those under 18.

"By treating them as PINS we are acknowledging that they are victims, not perpetrators," Paulin said. "They need to be shown the care, attention and protection they deserve so they have every chance to break free from the cycle of violence and degradation that has become so prevalent in their lives."

The PINS program is a component of the family court system for children 9 to 18 who are determined to need guidance or supervision due to offenses such as truancy or underage drinking. The new law allows access to resources provided by the program like mental health counseling, social services and preventive services.

Although a 2008 law known as the Safe Harbor for Exploited Youth Act was established to protect victims of sex trafficking, New York remains one of only two states where the age of criminal responsibility is 16. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in his State of the State Address he will seek to raise the age to 18, but those caught in the commercial sex industry are now no longer subject to the criminal court system.

According to Paulin, providing these options will help keep youth caught in the commercialized sex industry from returning or once again falling victim to exploitation. She added, the new law will allow these 16- and 17-year-olds a chance to rejoin society and recapture a normal life if they choose to take advantage of the resources and programs provided.

"Before these girls would be walking into a criminal court and likely it would get dismissed and they would walk right back out into the hands of the pimp," Paulin said. "Now their lawyers have another option and they can divert them to PINS and they can be referred to services and treated like victims."

Director of the Juvenile Justice Project at the Correctional Association of New York Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco said the extension of the Safe Harbor Act to 16- and 17-year-olds rectifies the inconsistencies with how the law deals with a minor's ability to consent to sex.

For instance, prior to the legislation, a person under 17 was legally incapable to consent to sex yet a 16-year-old would have been held criminally responsible for being sexually exploited. Horowitz -Prisco also noted that society as well as science recognizes children do not have fully developed brains and a 16-year-old is not permitted to get a tattoo, vote, get married or even use a fake tanning bed.

"They need help, not criminalization," Horowitz-Prisco said. "The criminalization of children is just bad public policy. To be commercially exploited for the financial gain of an adult and then criminalized for that is shocking on its face."

Yuval Sheer is deputy director of The New York Center for Juvenile Justice — an organization that has advocated for the passage of Paulin's legislation. Sheer said the previous system had allowed traffickers more leverage over those they have exploited and a legislative response was necessary.

"Sexually exploited youth were still exposed to a lifetime of stigma or a criminal record which stays with you for life," Sheer said. "These youth didn't have access to services available for sexually exploited youth below the age of 16. Our state didn't have the right legislative framework to respond to their needs because exploited youth need services and support and not criminalization."

Now that a safety net is in place for victims, Paulin said she plans to focus on the perpetrators. Provisions included in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, would focus on traffickers and those who patronize a minor for sex. Provisions of the legislation would create the offense of aggravated patronizing of a minor and establish procedures for judges, and police dealing with 16- and 17-year-olds.

"You can never do enough for human trafficking victims," Paulin said. "This is a very important bill and I'm very proud of it but there are other things that we still have to do and I'm very excited about the opportunity to do that this session."

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