Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell may be the household names most associated with human sex trafficking in the United States, but the practice of exchanging sex for money is a common occurrence in motels, private homes, and parties throughout New York State and the world. It is estimated that between 15 to 20 percent of American men will purchase sex during their lifetime, and roughly half think that prostitution should be legalized in the United States. Furthermore, sex buyers often justify their actions by claiming there is no harm caused by the commercialization of sex if it is between consenting adults.
Studies tell a different story: many sex workers report personal histories of domestic violence and child sex abuse and suffer from trauma, depression and other mental illnesses. Unfortunately, most people are unaware that many sex workers are controlled by human traffickers. A portion, and sometimes all, of the money exchanged goes to enrich organized crime, and the women and men for hire are ensnared into this dehumanizing practice through continual threats of violence and a stream of highly addictive drugs.
Sadly, many of these victims only receive intervention services once they enter the criminal justice system. In 2018, I started the Sheriff’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative (SATI). It is the first unit of its kind in a county jail focused on identifying human trafficking victims, connecting victims with services, and building cases against traffickers. Since its inception, the SATI Unit has conducted over 2,300 inmate interviews, identified 198 human-trafficking victims and 129 perpetrators. This information, coupled with other data mined during interviews, has led to more than 500 victim referrals for various services.
The SATI Unit uses a comprehensive screening process to identify and aid victims.
Correction officers at the county jail are attuned to key indicators, like possession of hotel key cards, tattoos and markings, physical abuse signs, multiple cell phones and large amounts of money in an inmate’s property. Additional screenings probe life circumstances including housing, employment, history of abuse and neglect, substance abuse, and other known risk factors for human-trafficking victimization.
If a potential victim is identified, they are referred to investigators within the SATI Unit, who begin the incremental process of educating the individual about human sex trafficking.
These conversations are often difficult because these women and men are often deeply troubled after having suffered intense mental and emotional trauma throughout their lives. Sex workers are not often fully aware that they have been entrapped, and they are fearful of discussing personal information with members of law enforcement. As their comfort level evolves, SATI officers can bring in social service and mental health workers to delve more deeply into effects of victimization.
Lawmakers in Albany are now considering justice reform measures aimed to decriminalize the sex trade. One of two so-called 'justice reform' bills currently making their way through the Senate and the Assembly is the Full Decriminalization Model (S6419/A8230), which would eliminate the arrest or prosecution of buyers and sellers in the sex trade. This proposal would legalize brothel owners and managers, escort service owners, sex buyers and sex tourism operators. A counter bill called the Equality Model (S6040/A7069) would decriminalize working in the sex trade while continuing to arrest pimps, brothel owners and managers, escort service owners, sex buyers, and sex tourism operators. Since most people currently arrested for prostitution are, in fact, the victims of trafficking, this approach would give law enforcement the ability to dismantle those enriched by the trade and intervene on behalf of victims.
I urge lawmakers to consider the implications of all such proposed changes to state law, which must do more to protect victims of sexual exploitation and provide the necessary mental health treatment to those victimized by human trafficking. It is likely that both laws will exponentially increase the demand for sex services, leading New York to become a travel destination for people who want to engage in the practice. This could also lead to a dramatic increase in child sex trafficking because there will be greater overall demand for sex workers. Criminal networks will seek to fill that demand by luring younger victims into the trade.
Ultimately, we must do more to educate sex buyers about the psychological effects of the sex trade on victims, its association with gangs and organized crime, and its close ties to the drug trade. We must also look at the risk factors that make someone vulnerable to sex traffickers and find ways to intervene with human services at critical moments. Decriminalization, while well-intentioned, may end up doing more harm than good.