By Joseph Ax and Susan Heavey
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (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 the New York City boroughs of Manhattan and Queens and in Long Island's Nassau County for several years, will reach nearly 95 percent of all defendants charged with prostitution-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."
The announcement came on the same day that U.S. advisers released a report calling for tougher laws to prevent children and teenagers from being sold for sex and recommending that youthful sex workers be treated as victims, not criminals.
The report, issued by researchers at the National Academies, said the United States is still "in the very early stages" of addressing the issue.
The New York initiative is intended to serve as a model for other states, Lippman said.
By the end of October, 11 human trafficking intervention courts will be operating throughout the state. Some 3,700 individuals 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 made sex trafficking a crime 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 sex worker first enters the industry in the United States at age 12 to 14, Lippman said.
There is no clear data on how many young Americans are sold for sex. Estimates range from 1,400 to 2.4 million, according to the National Academies report, and experts say any tally is likely low because such crimes often go unreported.
Asia Graves of Baltimore became a victim as a homeless 16-year-old when she accepted a ride with man who soon began selling her for sex.
"When I told him I wanted to leave, he beat me for the first time. ... Men came to the hotel and had sex with me. He told me he would kill me or let these men kill me if I did not have sex," she told U.S. lawmakers in June.
So far, 18 states have enacted laws that provide services rather than prison for children caught up in the sex trade, according to the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking group.
"There's a real urgency here," said Jonathan Todres, a law professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta and one of the report's authors. "We need to recognize as a nation that these children are victims and survivors of violent crimes and abuse, and they should not be treated as criminals."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone, Leslie Gevirtz Editing by Leslie Adler)