By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York is creating the nation's first statewide system of courtrooms aimed at helping people escape lives of prostitution, which the law treats as a crime, but the state's chief judge on Wednesday described as akin to "modern-day slavery."
The effort, modeled on three pilot courts that have been in operation in Manhattan, Queens and Nassau County for several years, will reach nearly 95 percent of all defendants charged with prostitution and related offenses statewide, New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said.
It is part of an emerging consensus among criminal justice experts that prostitution is often a matter of coercion rather than choice, he said.
"It is in every sense a form of modern-day slavery," Lippman said at a forum hosted by the Citizens Crime Commission in New York City. "We have come to recognize that the vast majority of children and adults charged with prostitution offenses are commercially exploited or at risk of exploitation."
By the end of October, 11 human trafficking intervention courts will be operating throughout the state. Some 3,700 defendants were charged in New York State with prostitution and related crimes last year.
Every prostitution case not resolved at arraignment via a guilty plea or dismissal will be transferred to the special courts, where judges will determine with prosecutors and defense attorneys whether individual defendants are in need of services.
The courts will link defendants with shelters, healthcare and drug treatment services, job training, education and other resources, and charges will be dismissed or reduced based on compliance with court-directed programs.
In recent years, New York has passed a series of laws aimed at shifting the focus of prosecutions from sex workers to the pimps that employ them and the johns that hire them.
The state created the crime of sex trafficking in 2007, giving prosecutors a new tool to go after those who profit from prostitution. The legislature also passed a law allowing prostitution defendants under the age of 18 to enter into diversion programs and avoid jail time.
The average age that sex workers first enter the industry in the U.S. is 12 to 14, Lippman said.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Gevirtz)