Jenna Torres was about to start college on the day she was arrested for prostitution. Then she became a criminal. The 17-year-old learned this after spending a day in jail and meeting with a lawyer who urged her to plead guilty and participate in the city’s Human Trafficking Intervention Court (HTIC) system.
As she recalled at a recent City Council hearing, “I never agreed to the things they charged me of, but they arrested me anyway.” And she agreed to cop a plea and attend court-mandated “treatment” sessions in exchange for having the charges dismissed. But the criminal procedure cost her more than she imagined.
After cycling through holdings, which left her hospitalized with a urinary-tract infection that Torres attributes to the unsanitary facilities, she wended her way through a few weeks of mandatory counseling sessions. Torres would have far preferred freshman courses to the perfunctory talk therapy, but, ironically, that was made nearly impossible by her court intervention. She scrambled between court dates and counseling sessions, she recalled, knowing that “If I went to school and not do the programs, they would arrest me.”
On top of court appointments in Harlem and classes in Staten Island, Torres was raising an infant in Brooklyn, struggling as a single mother to cope with his health problems following a premature birth. “If I go to the court, and not deal with my son,” she recalled in a follow-up interview, “my son’s going to be even more sick than he was when I left.” By the time she “graduated” from the program, she had dropped school. “It’s ridiculous, because the things that they have put in place to help you kind of collide with each other,” she says.
According to the peer-led sex workers’ advocacy group Red Umbrella Project, the city’s scheme to divert sex workers from the criminal-justice system has often further criminalized them, by treating all people arrested for prostitution as one-dimensional victims—presuming that they are undeserving or incapable of asserting power or self-determination over their labor or their bodies.