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Human trafficking in our backyard

Human trafficking isn't just a problem overseas. It isn't confined to big cities either. Human trafficking is a world-wide tragedy that happens right here in central New York.

"We have certainly seen cases of human trafficking," said Randi Bregman, executive directive of Vera House. "We've seen adult victims, sometimes brought here from other countries under false pretenses. But we've seen more domestic and local victims, who are trafficked at young ages."

Many cases start here in the U.S. The Polaris Project estimates that anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 Americans are trafficked each year. More than half of those victims are children.

Distinguishing between prostitution cases and human trafficking cases can be difficult for law enforcement.

Sex trafficking victims often fear retaliation against themselves or their families and protect their abusers.

"It's hard to tell," admitted City Court Judge Ted Limpert, who oversees prostitution cases for Syracuse's human trafficking court. "If they do have a trafficker they often develop a bond with that person and they don't want to give them up even if they're being abused and sent out into the streets."

The new court, established late last fall in Syracuse as part of New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's statewide Human Trafficking Intervention Initiative, takes a new tactic by treating those arrested for prostitution as victims, rather than criminals. In lieu of jail time, defendants are offered a plea deal that provides six months of counseling and social services. Upon successful completion of the program, the court will dismiss the case.

"We can provide an opportunity for these women to have some hope for themselves," said Limpert. "We can get them mental health treatment, drug treatment if they need it. We help them get identification because sometimes they don't have it and get them work so that they can become productive citizens and not be on the streets anymore."

Though the court has only existed for a few months, Judge Limpert is optimistic about what he's seen so far. He estimates that about 80-percent of defendants have successfully completed the rehabilitation program, though more time is needed to know the long term success of the new court. In the meantime, human rights groups are applauding a system that no longer treats prostitution as a victimless crime.

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