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Opinion: N.Y.’s brutal trade in human lives

At the time of this 2012 photo, these six livery car drivers were charged with participating in a Manhattan sex trafficking ring
At the time of this 2012 photo, these six livery car drivers were charged with participating in a Manhattan sex trafficking ring. Jefferson Siegel/For New York Daily News

New York Daily News

In his State of the State address on Wednesday, Gov. Cuomo pledged his support for important legislative measures to combat human trafficking — a crime that does not often make headlines, but whose victims are in desperate need of our support and protection.

Take the case of Lamont Brunson, recently prosecuted by my office for sex trafficking. To show his ownership over a 17-year-old victim — a girl who’d been forced into prostitution starting at age 12 — Brunson branded her body with a tattoo of his street name.

Brunson instituted a minimum quota of money that she had to earn through prostitution each night and required her to turn over every dime. He forced her to sign a contract that she would stay with him “until death do us part.”

If the victim didn’t follow his rules, he beat her. On one occasion he hit her stomach — while she was pregnant — with a cane. On another, he smashed her face on the stairs as he dragged her up several flights.

The young victim finally decided that enough was enough. With great courage, she came forward with her story. Brunson is now serving up to nine years in prison.

While shocking, this type of experience is not uncommon among prostituted women. Their job is to make money for pimps, or else they suffer the horrific consequences of beatings, sexual abuse, exploitation and manipulation. In addition to physical abuse, many sex traffickers prevent their victims from leaving by taking their identification documents and threatening to harm their families.

Friday is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day — and that’s not just another ceremonial designation. It’s a potentially lifesaving opportunity, because educating the public about this crime is a vital part of combatting it.

One of the biggest reasons the crime is so tough to root out is that its victims — whether of sex or labor trafficking — are emotionally and economically dependent upon their abusers and therefore fearful of going to authorities.

Because of the realities of modern-day prostitution, my office, working closely with advocates and law enforcement partners, is taking a new approach to sex trafficking. Namely, where appropriate, we are treating the prostituted individuals in these trafficking rings as victims, not criminals. We work to put the traffickers behind bars and their victims onto paths toward safer lives.

We are also finally attacking every link in the chain of this crime. Last March, I created a new Human Trafficking program in the district attorney’s office. In our prosecutions, we are going after everything that allows sex trafficking to thrive — including the demand for prostitution.

If it were not for the demand side, trafficking would not exist. Last year, we announced the full-scale dismantling of one operation, charging everyone — from the traffickers at the very top, to the drivers who drum up business for them, to the johns themselves.

Another harrowing aspect of sex trafficking is that many of the victims, like Lamont Brunson’s victim, are minors. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the average age of entry into the sex industry is 12 to 14.

Victims most vulnerable to this crime have usually experienced trauma in their early lives, such as broken homes, child abuse and domestic violence. Simply being out on the street exposes a child to increased risk. Research shows that one in three runaways will be approached by an exploiter within 48 hours of leaving home.

To this end, my office supports legislation that would make it an automatic felony if the trafficked victim is a minor. We are also taking preventive measures by engaging in community outreach designed to reach at-risk youth.

Finally, I urge victims to call my office’s Human Trafficking Tip Line at 212-335-3400. The only way to effectively protect trafficked individuals is to work with advocates, raise public awareness about the realities of human trafficking and let victims know that there are safe places for them to seek help.

Vance is Manhattan district attorney.