Queens County (NY) Judge Fernando Camacho discusses why he created a prostitution diversion
court that helps victims leave a life of prostitution by linking them to counseling and social
services instead of sentencing them to jail time.
Hi, I’m Sarah Schweig of the Center for Court Innovation, and today I’m speaking with Judge Fernando Camacho. Judge
Camacho is currently a Queens County Administrative Judge for Criminal Matters. He has served as Deputy Supervising
Judge at the Queens County Criminal Court, where he presided over the Domestic Violence Court, and began a specialized
court dealing with teenagers charged with prostitution-related offenses. Today he discusses the beginnings of this
program and the roles courts can take for defendants with histories of trauma. So I wanted to talk a little bit about
what initially gave rise to the prostitution diversion program in the Queen’s County Supreme Court.
CAMACHO: Well, I was sitting in arraignment back in 2002, 2003, and a young woman named Siobhan who
was a runaway from Suffolk County, was in the well about 11:00 at night, and she had been arrested, and she was—I
think she was 16, and she had been arrested three or four times for prostitution. And, and I looked at her and the
offer, I think was plea the charge and 15 days, and I said I don’t want to do this. There’s got to be an explanation
as to why she’s out in the street at the age of 16.
I was working in arraignments just for that
week and I adjourned her case to my regular part for the following week, just to get to the bottom of it. And the
next time the case was on I started asking the attorneys questions, and there were answers that I wasn’t happy with,
specifically that I just didn’t think that she was out there of her own free will and she was making a knowing and
voluntary decision that we should be prosecuting her as an adult for. So from that point on, rather than giving her
a jail sentence I started looking for services for her.
After a couple years, believe it or not,
she kept coming back, she ultimately succeeded. When she came back and actually got into college, she came back and
told me. When she came back to get her driver’s license she came back and told me. And ultimately she turned out
to be a tremendous success story.
But in the meantime, every time I would come across a young
person charged with prostitution, I would ask the same types of questions and I was getting the same answers. ‘How’d
you get into the life?’ ‘Well, I got into the life because I was a runaway or I was a throwaway or I ran away from
home because I was getting physically or sexually abused at home and I ran away, and I was recruited by a pimp.’
And I got the same stories over and over and over again to the point that it became clear, even to me, that it wasn’t
a coincidence: There was something going on out there in our own backyard where young kids who were runaways and
throwaways were winding up in vulnerable situations where they were being preyed upon and recruited by very bad people.
It also became clear to me that once they were in the street that it was not so easy if not downright impossible
for them to leave, and that the way we were dealing with – had been dealing with them traditionally in the criminal
justice system just wasn’t the right way. It wasn’t. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t just, and that’s how it started.
SCHWEIG: You previously worked as a prosecutor. How did your experiences there
help inform this initiative?
CAMACHO: I saw how we dealt with young
people charged with prostitution and back then it didn’t make any sense to me. Jail is not the right place for these
young people. A young person is presumed to be not competent to consent under certain statutory sex offenses, yet
the same young person who is not even capable of consenting is now going to be prosecuted as an adult for engaging
in prostitution and prostitution-related offenses. And that never made any sense. That’s just silly. All of us who
were sitting in that area way back in 1986 understood that these young kids who were being charged with prostitution
were going to jail for 15, 20, 25 days, we were just not doing it the right way. We were just not doing the right
thing for these kids. And then once I got in a position where I had some discretion and I could do it differently,
I ultimately got enough resolve together to say, ‘Look, this is wrong. Let’s do it the right way.’
What do you think are some of the issues surrounding prostitution that the courts and especially judges need to be
aware of as they deal with these cases?
CAMACHO: You know, I’m gonna
give everybody the benefit of the doubt, including myself way back when. I just don’t think any of us realized the
amount of pressure, coercion that was going on: the threats, the violence. I don’t think any of us realized that
if they didn’t go out there and come back with a certain amount of money, they were gonna be beaten. And none of
us, I think, realized that. And I think it’s just such a distasteful thing for all of us to just look at these kids,
these children standing there in these ridiculous looking outfits—and we just didn’t want to face the truth. And
I, I also think in terms of the elected officials who count on the votes of these communities, the community is very
outspoken when they find, you know, used condoms on their street, when they have their kids and understandably so:
They don’t want their neighborhood to be the track. You know, nobody could argue with that. But they put a lot of
pressure to bear upon the politicians. But what I don’t think the response of the people in public service wasn’t
the correct response. The response should have been, ‘I agree with you. The neighborhood should not be where this
stuff is happening, but the way we’ve been dealing with this problem traditionally is just not accomplishing anything
because they’re still there. We can round them all up and put them on a bus and bring them to central booking and
they’ll be out tomorrow and they’ll be back on your street the day after.’ So this is not the right way. The right
way is to, through education, to actually reach out to these kids and to show them that there is a way out of the
life and if this is not what they want to be doing, we will give them the resources, we will give them the ability
to leave the life and to do something different like Siobhan did.
What were some of the challenges you encountered developing this model?
What I had to initially deal with was changing that perception. And I’m talking about changing the perception, first
of all with myself, and secondly with the people I work with: my colleagues, with the D.A.’s office, with even the
defense bar, with the police department. I mean everybody had to change the way they looked at these kids. And these
aren’t bad girls who like to do this. Many of them are poor, unfortunate, lost souls who have no choice but to do
this. And then after that, you know, operationally the obstacles were just—I can’t even name them. I mean just in
terms of getting all these kids going to the same part, the pimps hanging around the corner waiting for the cases
to be called, using my quorum as a place to recruit, getting these kids—the security issues—getting these kids out
safely without the, without you know, the pimp waiting outside to throw them in a car and take them back to the track.
There’s an inherent conflict, there always has been between the advocates and the social workers, the people
who advocate for these kids, and law enforcement, and the police department, and the D.A.’s office because the advocates
want the kids to be safe, they want them to get out of the life, but they don’t want them to cooperate with law enforcement
against the pimps because they fear for the kids’ safety and rightly so. On the law enforcement side, on the D.A.
side, on the police side, they want these kids to cooperate and be witnesses. They may not be as concerned about
their safety as the advocates are. So there’s always been that inherent conflict—bridging those differences and those
conflicts was a difficult thing to do because if we didn’t get them all at the same table talking about solutions
to these problems, it wasn’t gonna work.
Once that happened—and I think it has happened to a great
degree—you’re getting these advocates agreeing to have these victims cooperate with the DA’s office in prosecution
against very, very bad traffickers. At the same time, you have these prosecutors who are willing to take a young
kid and put them up on the witness stand and asking the jury to believe them. Traditionally they were reluctant to
put these kids on the stand. Their attitude was, ‘who’s gonna believe this prostitute?’ And, and, and now they’re
understanding that they have to go beyond that and say to the jury, ‘Look, this is not a – this is a kid who had
no choice but to get into this and they had no way out.’ So I think that the prosecutors are now understanding that
they can, in fact, persuade a jury that these kids are credible. Um, in terms of resources initially there were very,
very few resources available. I mean now, thankfully we have many, many organizations who are now working with this
SCHWEIG: So maybe you could talk a little bit about what
some of the lessons learned from the implementation of this program are and what advice you would give other jurisdictions
interested in creating a prostitution diversion program in their courts.
I think in terms of just bringing everybody together, getting law enforcement to appreciate that these are—many of
them are—just poor lost kids, they’re not the criminals. And having them have to face these kids and talk to them
and get the story themselves. Because anybody who sits down with these kids and hears their story and hears the same
story over and over again, unless they’re—unless they’re not human, they can’t help but be moved and they can’t help
but to understand that we need to do something about this. Getting the advocates to understand that maybe you can
trust the police. Maybe you can trust law enforcement. Maybe you can, maybe you can counsel your client, the victim,
to really cooperate with the police because maybe that’s the only way that they’re gonna be able to rid themselves
of this person who is just, you know, this shadow that just hangs over them that’s never gonna let them go. So just,
I think just educating everybody, making everybody understand that the goal really is the same, and the goal is to,
is to prosecute the traffickers. The goal is to give these young kids an opportunity to get out of the life.
SCHWEIG: Right. And that in turn would affect the general public safety of
communities, I would imagine.
CAMACHO: Absolutely because we are
having, we have more prosecutions now of traffickers than we’ve ever had ever before, and that’s because of the change
in legislation and that’s because of the change in perception. Also among law enforcement that they’re now more willing
to investigate and prosecute traffickers. And among the victims, who are now more willing to cooperate and testify
because there’s less mistrust. So it’s all a process and the more success stories that you have, the more kids who
are getting out of the life, who are going to college, who are getting their own apartments, who are getting their
job, who are having, you know, having a family, who are now coming back and mentoring these other kids and saying,
‘Look at me. I made it. Look at me now.’
So there is—in this particular area, it is so complicated.
Anybody who tells me on the first effort you’re gonna get these kids to leave the life, they—maybe one out of 1,000
will do that. It’s gonna—they’re gonna fail. They’re gonna fail once, they’re gonna fail twice, they’re gonna fail
three times, and they’re gonna go back. And unless the judge is educated enough to understand that there was a re-arrest
for prostitution: ‘well yeah, I expected that.’ And they’re gonna yell—I’ve been called every name in the book by
some of these kids. You have to say ‘Okay, relax, take it easy.’ And if you’re lucky, the 10th
time they’ll get it. They have lived 10 lifetimes in their 16 or 17 years of life. And these are kids that you need
patience with, you need understanding, you need experience, you need special resources, you need special people,
you need to train people to appreciate their issues and their problems. Otherwise you’re not gonna reach them.
SCHWEIG: I’m Sarah Schweig of the Center for Court Innovation and I’ve been
speaking with Judge Fernando Camacho about the challenges the issue of prostitution presents to individuals and communities,
and a new approach courts can take with defendants who have histories of trauma. To find out more about the Center
for Court Innovation, visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. Thank you for listening.