By 9:30 a.m. on a Friday, the defendants start filing into the fluorescent-lit hallway outside Judge Toko Serita’s courtroom in Queens Criminal Court in Kew Gardens, checking anxiously for their names on a sheet of paper behind glass. Many of the women are Chinese and find that their names, typed in English, are misspelled.
In the hallway, they speak mostly in Mandarin, in accents from across China. Some speak Korean. They meet with their court-appointed lawyers in the hallway, often helped by an interpreter born in Fujian Province and hired by the city courts. A snazzy dresser, the interpreter bounces from one defendant to the next; he has found himself adding terms to his usual vocabulary: prostitution (“maiyin”), illegal massage (“feifa anmo”), unlicensed massage (“wuzheng anmo”).
This is the Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens, which is marking its 10th anniversary next month, and which serves as a model for a statewide 11-court program that began last year. The intention is to change the legal conversation around the multibillion-dollar sex trade by redefining the women in it as victims instead of criminals. Most are offered a deal: Take part in a set number of counseling sessions, usually five or six, and the charges will be dismissed and the record sealed.