The Rochester Human Trafficking Court is expanding its services to include towns and villages around Monroe County, with the help of a federal grant.
Judge Craig Doran says that several years ago, the state’s former Chief Judge Jonathan Lipmann opened his eyes to a serious concern that was going under the radar.
"The city of Rochester has a disproportionately high number of low-level prostitution arrests," Doran says. "And Judge Lipmann indicated that it was his experience that that is an indication in a community that there is a human trafficking problem."
So, since 2013, the Human Trafficking Intervention Court has been presided over by Rochester City Court Judge Ellen Yacknin.
Yacknin says that the court’s aim is to assist victims of human trafficking when they arrive to the court for prostitution charges.
"The overwhelming number of people arrested for prostitution, not just in the state of New York or Rochester but also in the country, either have been or are, at the current time, victims of trafficking," Yacknin says.
The court began on a shoestring budget. It is now receiving a $750,000 federal grant over the course of three years. Yacknin says that much of the funding will go toward providing coordinated services.
“We’ve also made the decision to expand our services and outreach not just to people who are arrested in Rochester, New York, but also to the 20 or so towns and villages throughout Monroe County," she says.
The court works like this: Someone charged with prostitution is invited to participate in the specialized court proceedings. They must first admit to the charges.
The judge then requests that they take certain actions, like moving to safer housing, seeking mental health counseling, or getting drug addiction treatment. They sign a contract.
When the person convicted fulfills the requirements, they can return to the court. If they haven’t been arrested again, they graduate from the court. Graduation comes with a major benefit: Charges are dismissed.
“Their records are absolutely wiped clean from any kind of reference to being arrested for prostitution,” she says.
But, Yacknin says, people tend to come back with new charges. They get another chance, Yacknin says, because it's the kind of work that requires many chances.
Prostitution is a crime for adults, though whether a felony or misdemeanor depends on the specifics of the case. For minors found engaging in prostitution, there are Safe Harbor Laws that treat the individual as a victim, not a criminal, and offer certain protections. New York state enacted the nation's first Safe Harbor law in 2008.
In Rochester, Elaine Spaull is the executive director of the Center for Youth, which offers safe housing and services for minors who are at risk of being the targets of traffickers, or who have been victimized. She was recognized by Doran for her work on Tuesday.
She says that those most at risk of being targeted for trafficking are homeless youths.
"We know that our homeless young people, those who are disenfranchised, those that are not connected to family, to church, to school are more likely, much more likely, to be victims of trafficking," Spaull says.
She says that the Center for Youth receives about 200 referrals of minors who have been trafficked or are at risk of being victimized in any given year, but she isn’t discouraged.
"I’m actually quite proud of us for not turning our backs and saying this couldn’t happen here. Of course it could. Of course it could. It happens everywhere," she says.
Signs that someone is being trafficked can include not having a cellphone or bank account, having tattoos of someone’s name or initials, bruises, wandering the street, no access to money, and drug addiction.
If you suspect someone may be the victim of human trafficking, advocates advise calling Lifeline at 211, or Polaris Project’s National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.