New York State Allows Trafficking Survivors to Vacate Prostitution Convictions

On June 15, 2010 the New York State senate passed a bill that, effective as soon as Governor Paterson signs it, enables survivors of human trafficking to vacate their convictions for prostitution-related offenses. This amendment to New York State Criminal Procedure Law grants those who were trafficked into commercial sex the opportunity to start over with a clean slate.

The Sex Workers Project (SWP) worked closely with Assembly Member Richard Gottfried to draft and introduce the bill in April 2009, which is also sponsored by Senator Thomas Duane. Supporters include the New York City Bar Association, the New York Anti-Trafficking Network, and Sex Workers Action New York.

The new legislation empowers survivors of trafficking by allowing them to move on with their lives, and function in society without the stigma of past exploitation. Survivors have a better chance of escaping re-victimization or further coercion when they do not have criminal records that often prevent them from obtaining work, getting stable housing, and adjusting their immigration status.

Who does this affect?

Over the past eight years the Sex Workers Project (SWP), a legal advocacy and services organization housed by the Urban Justice Center, has given legal assistance to many people who are in the sex industry by choice, circumstance, or coercion. As they assisted survivors of trafficking in accessing their rights and attaining safety, security, and a better future, it became clear that there was a need for a legal remedy that would allow survivors to move forward with their lives.

One client, “Carmen,” was trafficked from Mexico, and was beaten, abused and forced to do prostitution. She was arrested over 10 times during this nightmare, but her fear of the police made it impossible to inform law enforcement that she was being exploited by a third party. “Stacey” is a United States citizen who was trafficked into prostitution as a teen when she ran from an abusive home. She recovered with help from service providers, but has had trouble getting a job because of her prostitution conviction. As a result of the passage of the vacating prostitution convictions legislation, Carmen will no longer be blocked from immigration status because of her prostitution record, and Stacey will no longer have to inform potential employers of her record.

Why is this good?

People who are coerced into the sex industry and are then convicted of prostitution are handed a raw deal. In addition to being survivors of abuse and coercion, they saddled with lifelong stigma by the criminal justice system. With a prostitution conviction on their records, survivors of sex trafficking have a difficult time moving forward. This is not justice; it is harmful to survivors and can lead to re-victimization if they are unable to secure legal status in the United States and in the workforce.

The passage of this bill has shown us that it is possible for sex workers rights advocates to have their say, and that there are state legislators who will listen to our concerns. This gives us hope for changing a system that so often institutionalizes violence and discrimination against sex workers.

What’s next and what can I do about it?

If you live in New York State, this is a really great opportunity to make your Assembly and Senate representatives’ acquaintance. Send your representatives a letter (feel free to use the sample text below or write your own).

  • Find out who your Assembly member and Senator are here. Call or write to them to express your thanks!
  • To make it even easier, we’ve set up a form you can submit. Sign a “Thank you” petition on Change.org – which will automatically be sent to your representatives –  here.

There is, of course, more work to be done. There is another bill making its way through the legislature right now that, if passed, will stop police and prosecutors from using possession of condoms as evidence that people are engaging or intending to engage in prostitution. Right now in New York people who are profiled as prostitutes, very often trans women, often have their condoms confiscated as evidence of prostitution. In addition to thanking your representatives, you should urge them to support New York State Bill A10893/S01289A.

Sample letter:

Dear ______ ,

Thank you for voting in favor of New York State Bill A7670/S04429, which enables survivors of human trafficking to vacate their convictions for prostitution-related offenses.

I live in your district and I support the human rights of people who are in the sex industry by choice, circumstance, or coercion. The reasons a woman, transgender woman, man, or transgender man may enter and continue to be in the sex industry are complex and are often tied to economic instability and inequalities faced by women and LGBT people.

As you know, an advocate’s work is never done. Currently, bills A10893/S01289A are making their way through the legislature. If passed, this bill will stop police and prosecutors from using possession of condoms as evidence that people are engaging or intending to engage in prostitution. This practice affects public health initiatives promoting condom use and distributing condoms to at-risk populations. Please support this bill and remove the fear of carrying condoms among our most vulnerable populations.

Sincerely,

NAME

Address

I’m not a New Yorker. How can I advocate against harmful policies in my state?

Ask most people about government and they tend to talk about their federal representatives, the White House, or maybe their Mayor. But the state government may have the most significant impacts on our daily lives, particularly in the realm of criminal justice. Although the process from bill to law varies widely state to state, there are some common strategies sex worker advocates can take.

  • Familiarize yourself with the current laws that affect sex workers.
    • Criminal Law– find out what crimes sex workers are arrested and convicted for – it could include prostitution, solicitation, loitering, or others. Talk to sex workers in your community who have been arrested and ask them about their experiences with the law.
    • Civil Law – find out if sex workers can be evicted from their homes, denied custody of their children, or lose their jobs.
    • Exotic dancers, pro-dommes, porn actors, and others – Find out if there are laws that discriminate against these workers.
    • Ask a friendly lawyer for help!
  • Look for current bills that make changes to these laws – for better or worse. Try a search on your state’s legislative webpage for key words like “prostitution.”
  • Make allies – research local organizations that may be allied with your goals. Try LGBT orgs, public health orgs, harm reduction orgs, civil rights orgs. These organizations may have legislative advocacy staff that can help you get oriented.
  • Develop your platform. Think small – look for concrete objectives that can be accomplished with adjustments to the law. Any of these New York bills could be used as “model legislation” to make similar changes in your state. Your platform may include opposing bad bills that increase penalties for sex work.
  • Research your local representatives. Identify potential allies and opposition to sex workers rights.
  • Write, call, and meet with your legislator once you have a clear ask (“I would like to ask for your support on bill XXXXX” or “I have an idea for a piece of legislation that would accomplish…”). Assume they know nothing about sex work and may be surprised to hear from a sex worker/ally constituent.
  • Register to vote, and vote in local elections!

5 Responses

  1. […] Posted by swopcolorado on June 20, 2010 · Leave a Comment  New York state allows trafficking survivors to clear convictions from their criminal records. […]

  2. Thank you for the info on this site and here about NY. It shows how important it is that sex workers, even retired ones like myself, are registered to vote, and become knowledgeable about the laws where they live with respect to prostitution.

    One of the things that concern me about “different” rules applying to sex trafficking victims than “voluntary” sex workers is that some sex workers might cry “trafficking victim” in order to get special services and treatment. Which wouldn’t be so much of a concern if not that the courts are then requiring prosecurtion in order for a woman to cry “victim”.

    How many men and even women are going to be falsely accused of being a “pimp” and/or trafficker if the only way to get special treatment is to cry “traffic victim”?

    It still seems like society is trying to separate women into “categories” only here it’s the difference between a “good” sex worker and a “bad” one. The whole Madonna Whore thing raising it’s head again only now it’s like they are going to say we don’t have to “punish” the sex workers who were “forced” into sex work because they “didn’t really want to do it” so we’re not going to put them in jail – but then the flip side is saying that if a woman says she wants to be in sex work than she “deserves” to go to jal.

    What about when one feels forced by economic conditions to be in sex work? They go to jail anyway because their feelings of being forced into sex work are not ok because no one had a gun to their heads?

    I just don’t like the way society is alawys trying to stamp some women as “good” and some as “bad”.

    Isn’t making a disctinction between a sex trafficker victim and a “voluntary” sex worker pretty much the same thing? Telling us this type of sex is “ok” but this one “isn’t”?

    Jody

  3. Jody,

    “It still seems like society is trying to separate women into “categories” only here it’s the difference between a “good” sex worker and a “bad” one. The whole Madonna Whore thing raising it’s head again only now it’s like they are going to say we don’t have to “punish” the sex workers who were “forced” into sex work because they “didn’t really want to do it” so we’re not going to put them in jail – but then the flip side is saying that if a woman says she wants to be in sex work than she “deserves” to go to jal…Isn’t making a disctinction between a sex trafficker victim and a “voluntary” sex worker pretty much the same thing? Telling us this type of sex is “ok” but this one “isn’t”?”

    You’re so correct. That is EXACTLY what it is. Thanks for putting into words what I haven’t been able to quite my finger on.

    XX

  4. Hey, that’s one of the Lusty’s photos on your site.

  5. […] New York State Allows Trafficking Survivors to Vacate Prostitution Convictions […]

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