By David Brand
Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz on Monday announced the creation of a new Human Trafficking Bureau to prosecute sex and labor traffickers. The bureau will also prosecute people who pay for sex, recalling a debate over sex work decriminalization that divided candidates for Queens DA in 2019.
In a press statement, Katz said the new unit will provide services for survivors of sex trafficking and victims of exploitative labor practices.
“This new and dedicated bureau within my office, will combat those who would victimize others with aggressive investigations to end this industry,” Katz said in a statement. “We are also here to help the victims find a path to freedom with services and programs that will give them positive change in their lives and a future without fear.”
The new unit will feature a team of assistant district attorneys, led by veteran Assistant District Attorney Jessica Melton, as well as social workers, detectives and analysts, according to the DA’s Office. For the past six years, a Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens Criminal Court has dismissed the criminal records of people charged with selling sex if they complete programs and adhere to various conditions.
Queens, the most diverse county in the state and home to two international airports, is a key link in local and international trafficking networks.
On the campaign trail, Katz pledged to target traffickers. She also said she would prosecute people who purchase sex, but not people who sell sex.
“We’re not going to convict people for sex work,” she said at NY1 debate ahead of the primary. “We’re going to actually try and get to the sex traffickers and those that are forcing people into this industry, and at the same time try and make sure that if there’s other issues like drug abuse or anything else that comes with the industry, that we can be of service.”
Many sex workers and their advocates, including some Queens elected officials, caution against conflating coerced sex trafficking with sex work between consenting adults, however.
Two of Katz’s primary opponents — public defender Tiffany Cabán and former prosecutor Jose Nieves — said prosecuting people who purchase consensual sex, known as johns, drives the exchanges into the shadows and puts sex workers in danger.
State Sen. Jessica Ramos, who supports decriminalizing sex work, tweeted her opposition to the new Human Trafficking Bureau’s stance on prosecuting people who pay for sex Monday.
“Public policy should be about keeping all people safe,” Ramos said. “Prosecuting buyers of sex will only put more people in danger. Customers won’t be incentivized to give sex workers their real name, thus rendering sex workers defenseless if a customer becomes violent.”
But opponents of decriminalization say the exchanges are inherently non-consensual and favor prosecuting johns.
Supporters of an approach that penalizes people who purchase sex while offering services for sex workers say the model — which exists in Sweden, Norway and Canada — allows people to seek alternate forms of earning money without engaging in sex work.
Full sex work decriminalization, said U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney in 2019, “does not help or lift up or empower or protect women in any way, shape, or form.”
“I support efforts to decriminalize prostitution, but I do not support any idea, bill, or proposal that would let pimps, johns, and the exploiters off the hook,” she said.