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Human Trafficking Courts

Specialized courts take into consideration the needs of victim-defendants and seek to address such needs as a way to intervene in and prevent further trafficking exploitation. It is important to acknowledge that diversion and court-mandated services are not appropriate for all victims and that some stakeholders oppose requiring victims to receive services in order to receive lesser charges or sentences. Task forces should work with courts in their jurisdictions to respond in a trauma-informed and victim-centered way that does not punish a victim-defendant. To date, specialized courts are only addressing sex trafficking, so it is also important to consider how other types of human trafficking cases could be identified in the court system. 

Most human trafficking courts take key principles from the problem-solving court model to address trafficking. Task forces can be an essential part of the conversation in developing procedures, addressing special considerations, and providing resources to respond to identified victim-defendants. Specialized human trafficking courts have the following general characteristics:

  1. Case identification and assessment. Cases are first identified by case type or arrest charge. For sex trafficking, the arrest of an individual for prostitution-related charges is typically a red flag that can create an opportunity for identification. However, many victims of sex trafficking are also arrested for truancy, drug-related charges, shoplifting, and a wide range of other crimes. For labor trafficking, victim identification may be more difficult because there is no single arrest charge that raises red flags, but relevant arrests could involve truancy, assault, panhandling, shoplifting, lack of legal status and drug-related charges. Therefore, it is helpful for judges and court personnel to investigate trafficking issues during all forms of court proceedings and not presume a narrow focus on a single type of arrest charge. During a bail hearing, for instance, a judge can assess the person’s connections to the community, living conditions, and financial situation—all factors that may indicate trafficking activity. Once cases are flagged, research-based and gender-responsive screening instruments are used to identify victims, reveal their needs, and determine program eligibility. Planning questions for the court can include: Who will be responsible for identifying cases and conducting a screening? What type of tool will be used? When and where will it be administered?
  2. Trauma-informed courtroom protocols. Judges and courtroom staffs adopt practices that recognize the needs of victim-defendants, promote safety and procedural justice in the courtroom, and reduce criminal convictions and jail sentences. A single presiding judge to handle all the cases, working with regularly assigned prosecutors and defense attorneys, creates a consistent response. Planning questions include: How can the judge take a leadership role? What training is needed for the courtroom staff? How can courtroom communication be improved? How will cases be resolved without convictions or jail sentences?
  3. Linking victim-defendants to services. Identified victim-defendants (regardless of current trafficking status) are referred to community-based services, such as counseling, housing, legal services, and drug treatment. Depending on the nature of the case, the court can use its leverage to craft a meaningful mandate that serves to connect victims to these crucial services. According to the Center for Court Innovation, mandates should be  proportionate to the worth of the case. For example, an individual arrested for prostitution and facing up to 90 days in jail may instead receive 90 days of counseling services. Planning questions include: What community-based services are available? What is their language capacity? How will referrals be handled? What is the length of the program?
  4. Judicial compliance monitoring. Victim-defendants have regular and frequent court appearances in front of a consistent judge who is trained in the dynamics of human trafficking and trauma and who adheres to the principles of procedural justice. Tracking cases through to disposition and regular updates to the court and prosecutor assist in enforcing the system. Graduated interventions are also available to allow room for failure. Planning questions include: How frequently will cases be on the calendar for compliance, and who will be involved? What information is required by the court, and how will it be shared by service providers? What happens if victim-defendants are noncompliant or are rearrested?
  5. Collaboration and capacity building. Court system participation in task forces helps to build relationships, improve communication, and cultivate buy-in to support the successful implementation of any human trafficking court. Onsite or conveniently located service providers can offer vital support to victims.
  6. Evaluation and performance indicators. Clear goals and realistic performance measures are established to effectively monitor the success of the human trafficking court, assess goal achievement, and identify areas for improvement. Metrics can include victims identified, services provided, type of trafficking, compliance with court-mandated programs, and short-term and long-term outcomes for victim defendants (e.g., improved education levels, job placement, family reunification if children were removed, and no recidivism). Stakeholders meet regularly to review outcomes and collaborate on course adjustments if needed.

    Example: New York State Human Trafficking Intervention Courts
    In September 2013, New York launched the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, which include 11 specialized courts across the state that seek to identify and divert sex trafficking victims arrested for prostitution-related offenses. These courts treat defendants as victims in need of critical services. With the collaborative support of the court’s stakeholders and service providers across the state, they work to connect individuals to meaningful court-mandated interventions.

    All cases with misdemeanor prostitution or related charges that continue past arraignment are transferred to a Human Trafficking Intervention Court; once transferred to that specialized court, victim-defendants are evaluated by onsite staff. The court connects victim-defendants to tailored counseling and case management services, which range from shelter and health care to immigration assistance, drug treatment, and counseling. These counselors and social workers also screen for indicators of trafficking. A victim-defendant’s charges may be dismissed or reduced contingent on compliance with these court-mandated services and programs.


    For additional information, visit Resources 6.4.