Changing Lives, Offering Second Chances

In today's New York Times, Jim Dwyer's column focuses on a forgotten group of young women, ages 18 to 24, who are victims of human trafficking and have been arrested and prosecuted for prostitution. Kate Mogulescu, a staff attorney in the Manhattan Office of the Criminal Practice, is working with the women who are the victims of human trafficking to help them get a second chance and change their lives by working to vacate their convictions so they can find jobs. Three motions have been filed to vacate convitions for women who have been convicted of prostitution and are eligible to challenge their convictions because of their status as trafficking victims. Several other clients have been identified who may be eligible for similar relief.

“This is a landmark moment,” Steve Banks, Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society told The New York Times. “There are thousands of women who will benefit over time. It removes a blot on their lives.”

In his column, Dwyer focuses on the plight of a young woman who was forced into prostitution at the age of 13. She is now living in Georgia and beginning a new life with her young daughter. (Read the New York Times story below)

The Legal Aid Society has been awarded a grant from the NoVo Foundation for an innovative, interdisciplinary pilot project to address the comprehensive needs of these victims. With this project, The Legal Aid Society uses a team model to best represent victims of trafficking who are prosecuted as criminal defendants rather than treated as victims deserving assistance. An estimated 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked annually into the United States. The number of U.S. citizens trafficked within the country is even higher, with over 200,000 American children at high risk for trafficking into the sex industry each year. In New York County there are several hundred prostitution-related arrests each year. A significant number of those arrested for prostitution related charges are victims of exploitation and trafficking. The extent of this victimization is rarely revealed as these cases are processed in Criminal Court. Under current practice, trafficking victims continue to be criminalized as they cycle in and out of the criminal justice system.

The New York Times
Snared Into Prostitution at 13, and Now Given a Chance for a Clean Legal Slate
September 21, 2011
By Jim Dwyer

The summer she was 13, before she went into eighth grade, the child who would come to be known on police blotters under a half-dozen names began to stand on sidewalks in the Bronx and wait for men in cars to give her money for sex. Call her Leni Johnson.

Her previous employment had been bagging groceries for tips in a Pathmark, wearing the uniform of the Catholic middle school she attended in the Bronx. That summer, in 2001, she was outfitted by a 21-year-old man who paid her less than she had made at the supermarket and brought her to Hunts Point.

“He gave me the little shorts to wear, and the little tank top thing to wear,” said Ms. Johnson, now 22, who asked to be identified pseudonymously. “He told me: ‘Just stand right there. When the car pulls up, just tell them, “You want to have a good time?” You tell them the price, then you go and do whatever.’ ”

For the next eight years, she was sold by men to men. She went through spells when her young body was bringing in $1,600 to $2,500 a night. All of it went to the pimps, she said. They gave her stiletto-heeled shoes, and Ecstasy, and two babies, and beatings with a stick for looking at other pimps.

On Wednesday, she will be part of a small, vital revolution in New York State. Her lawyers from the Legal Aid Society and prosecutors from the district attorney’s office in the Bronx will jointly ask a judge to overturn her convictions on prostitution charges before she had reached the age of consent. A law that took effect in August 2010 recognizes that children and minors who perform sex for money are not criminals but victims, and says that they should not bear the residual burden of convictions.

If her request is successful, as is likely, Ms. Johnson will become the third woman in the state to have used the new statute to erase prostitution convictions, and the first United States citizen to do so, said Kate Mogulescu, a Legal Aid lawyer who is representing her.

How many girls are involved in similar situations? In 2007, the state commissioned a survey of every social services agency that had contact with minors in trouble.

In New York City, the study found 399 children who were first “commercially sexually exploited” at age 12 or 13, and 922 at 14 or 15. The state and city have made reforms to move young people like them out of the criminal justice system and to help them with social services.

“The majority of the girls out there had started when they were young,” Ms. Johnson said. “They find a little bit of happiness in the game.”

That means there are vast numbers of women who were arrested as minors on prostitution charges.

“This is a landmark moment,” said Steve Banks, the attorney in chief at Legal Aid. “There are thousands of women who will benefit over time. It removes a blot on their lives.”

Ms. Johnson lives in Georgia and works in a Waffle House, supporting her daughter, who is not yet 3. (An older son lives with Ms. Johnson’s mother in the Bronx.) She hopes to get a second job, Ms. Johnson said, but the first question on a supermarket application was, “Have you ever been convicted?”

The court hearing on Wednesday will address three convictions for prostitution in 2006, when she was 17. Her pimp, who is under investigation and whom she did not want to identify, had given her false identification that showed she was over 18.

She grew up in the Bronx, the eldest of three daughters born to a hard-working single mother who ran her household with rules and attention that you might expect would keep a child from going astray.

As she tells her story now, a decade later, of the headstrong, damaged, bright, pretty girl that she was, it is hard to grasp all the forces that brought her to a life on the streets. In 2001, a few months before she first left home, her father, who did not live with the family but with whom she was close, was murdered in New Jersey. She cherished the attention of the older boys and men.

It came to an end in 2008, she said, when she learned that she was pregnant and was expecting a girl.

“There was just no way she could be around that,” Ms. Johnson said. “Not having it here."

New Yorker expunges prostitution record under trafficking law
By Barbara Goldberg
Wed Sep 21, 2011 6:53pm EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - She will not forget the "pimp stick" beatings and forced sex, but a 22-year-old New Yorker was allowed on Wednesday to erase her criminal prostitution record, the first U.S. citizen to do so under a new sex trafficking law.

Identified by authorities only as Ms. Johnson, a pseudonym used out of concern for her safety, the woman was a 13-year-old runaway when she was pushed into prostitution by a 21-year-old man she thought was her boyfriend, according to documents filed in state Supreme Court in the Bronx.

Over the next six years, the Bronx native was sold by pimps on the street and convicted three times for prostitution before a customer helped her to escape.

On Wednesday, her criminal record for prostitution was expunged by a judge who agreed with both prosecutors and defense attorneys that she was protected under a recent New York State law that equates pimps with sex traffickers.

Under the law, "pimp-controlled" prostitutes of any age are considered victims who should not bear the burden of convictions that can interfere with employment, housing, government benefits and other aspects of a law-abiding life.

"The law says any survivor of sex trafficking can try to have their record expunged if they prove the conviction obtained was the result of having been trafficked," said Legal Aid lawyer Kate Mogulescu, who defended the woman in court.

"This is the first case that involved pimp-controlled prostitution," Mogulescu said.

She said New York was the first state to pass a law to allow pimp-controlled prostitutes to expunge their records, and noted the woman is the first U.S. citizen helped by the law. Two other women aided by the law were not citizens.

Mogulescu is involved in an ongoing project aimed at rewriting the sex trafficking law so that such women are not convicted to begin with. "Now, unfortunately, the law only provides remedy for women already convicted," she said.


Until now, the woman, who has moved to Georgia and works in a Waffle House, has had to reveal her criminal convictions on job applications. The mother of two young children, she hopes to continue her education and pursue a career in health care.

The harsh rules of the pimp-controlled life she endured from the age of 13 were outlined in court documents.

"Through violence and manipulation, pimp-traffickers create a system in which their prostitutes are incapable of supporting themselves or escaping their reliance on the pimp," the court papers said.

Women under the control of a pimp must never use the pimp's true name and must make themselves physically lower than their pimp, standing on the street if the pimp claims the sidewalk.

They must earn a specific monetary quota through prostitution each might, must give it all to the pimp, and are forbidden from making eye contact with another pimp, the court papers said. Any violation of these rules will result in "beatings with belts, baseball bats or 'pimp sticks', described as two coat hangers wrapped together.

The pimps also punish their prostitutes by kicking them, punching them, forcing them to lay naked on the floor and then have sex with another prostitute while others watched, or locking them in the trunk of a car to teach them a lesson."

The Bronx woman's courage in trying to clear her name and move on with her life was commended by both the defense and the prosecution.

"She was indeed the victim of human trafficking dating back to a young age," Steven Reed, spokesman for the Bronx district attorney's office, said in a statement.

"In spite of a very challenging set of circumstances and in some instances great danger, she has fought diligently and successfully to overcome these challenges, to educate herself, to be a strong and committed mother," he said.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

New York Daily News
Woman forced into sex trade has prostitution convictions thrown out under new sex-trafficking law
By Kevin Deutsch
Thursday, September 22, 2011

A former Bronx prostitute became the first American citizen to have her prostitution convictions thrown out under New York's sex-trafficking law.

Leni Johnson, 22, had her convictions dismissed Wednesday after Bronx prosecutors agreed she was forced into the sex trade at age 13. The new state law recognizes child hookers as victims of sex trafficking rather than criminals - and allows their convictions for prostitution to be vacated.

"I feel very relieved and really happy," Johnson told the Daily News. "Now I can go and apply for anything without having to worry about anything coming up and people judging me. This has been really hard on me."

In an unprecedented move for a Bronx prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Cassandra Abodeely told a judge on Wednesday of Johnson's eight years of suffering at the hands of pimps.

"Ms. Johnson was a victim of human trafficking from a young age," Abodeely said before requesting the dismissals.

The three tossed convictions were the result of a pilot program launched by the Legal Aid Society, aimed at helping victims of human trafficking. Legal Aid lawyer Kate Mogulescu, who heads the project in the Bronx, used the year-old state law to clear Johnson's name. Two foreign-born prostitutes also have had their convictions tossed.

"There are so many women who are prosecuted when they are in fact victims," Mogulescu said. "This law is is monumental."