New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has launched a statewide initiative that will deal specifically with human trafficking cases, like prostitution. Rochester City Court opened its new division Wednesday.
It's a way to combat the antiquated idea that prostitution is a chosen profession. Judge Ellen Yacknin, who will be heading the division in the Seventh Judicial District, says the current system isn't working and offering rehabilitation services will end up saving Monroe County more money in the future.
"This is not a choice that we would make willingly. This is all about escaping and survival," said Jaime Saunders, Alternatives for Battered Women.
More than 100 people in the city of Rochester are arrested on prostitution charges each year. Saunders says most times, they are victims of abuse who are forced into criminal sex acts.
"So why have them keep coming back as criminals when really the data is starting to show they're victims of these social abuses and their pimps as well?" asked Judge Yacknin.
Yacknin will now offer those facing prostitution charges the option of a court-mandated program. The court will connect the defendant with housing, drug, mental health, and counseling services.
"Most victims of trafficking have been sexually abused since the time they were teenagers," Yacknin said.
The program is a minimum of six months and will force those living a type of nomadic lifestyle to report to court once a week.
"We can say you're still charged with a crime but we're going to look at you differently. If you don't succeed, you will go to jail," said Yacknin.
By the end of October, human trafficking courts will also be opening across Western New York, including Buffalo.
"We're shining the light and raising awareness. It may be very difficult but there are other alternatives out there," said Saunders.
Judge Yacknin says following completion of the program, a person's charges may be dismissed. She did say the court understands relapse may occur and repeat offenders can have a second chance at the program.