Courts Can Now Help, Not Punish, Teen Prostitutes

, New York Law Journal

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ALBANY - For the first time, criminal court judges in New York have the authority to treat 16- and 17-year-olds facing prostitution-related charges as Persons in Need of Supervision and to divert them into programs for troubled youths.

A measure signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo extends to criminal courts the powers granted to Family Court judges by the Safe Harbor Act of 2008 when adjudicating the cases of some teens charged with prostitution or loitering for the purposes of prostitution.

If the 16- and 17-year-olds plead guilty to the charges, and agree to their designation as PINS, they would become eligible for a range of services such as counseling, medical care, education, drug treatment and employment training. Their convictions would be expunged when they turn 18 or upon the conclusion of the proceedings, whichever occurs later, under the legislation.

Sponsors of the measure, A8071/S5839, and its supporters said it will allow criminal courts to treat the young offenders as victims instead of criminals and give them a better chance to escape a life of exploitation.

"I think the governor, by signing this legislation, sent a powerful message that sexually exploited children need to be seen and treated not according to some ill-conceived criminal standard, but precisely for who they are – New York's children," said Michael Corriero, the executive director of the New York Center for Juvenile Justice

Corriero, who spent 16 years presiding over the state courts' Manhattan Youth Part for young teens charged with violent felonies, said the new law also will allow sexually exploited teens to reenter society without a criminal history. "They deserve services and support, not the lifetime stigma of a criminal record," he said.

The sponsors of the bill, which is embodied in §170.80 of the Criminal Procedure Law, were Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, and Sen. Andrew Lanza, R-Staten Island. Cuomo signed the bill on Jan. 10.

The Legal Aid Society of New York City urged Cuomo to approve the measure, saying it keeps with a trend in criminal justice to treat young offenders differently than adults. Steven Banks, Legal Aid Society attorney-in-charge, noted that both Cuomo and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (See Profile) have endorsed the idea of raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York from 16 to 18 (NYLJ, Jan. 9).

Banks said the law puts the onus on the courts, prosecutors and defense counsels to make sure the PINS option is used as often as possible for the several thousands of 16- and 17-year-olds he estimated are arrested on prostitution-related charges in New York each year.

"Now it will be a challenge for the courts, the prosecution and the defense to work together to make sure that it is properly implemented," Banks said in an interview. "Criminal court judges have been deprived of appropriate remedies when dealing with adolescents. The legislation is the first step in giving them those remedies. The devil will be in the details of how it is implemented."

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