Last month I had the honor of accepting an award on behalf of Proskauer that was presented by Gloria Steinem on behalf of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW).  The firm works closely with CATW, and other organizations, in representing victims of human trafficking.  There is no question that this work is impactful and important, but I’ve learned that conventional pro bono — namely, representing individuals — is simply not enough.  We need to look beyond the individual case, to help raise public awareness and to advocate for certain commonsense changes in the law and public policy.

In working with sex trafficking victims, I have seen firsthand the strong connection between prostitution and human trafficking.  Traffickers prey on the most vulnerable in our society, including children, immigrants, and victims of abuse. Indeed, there is strong authority establishing that most of those involved in the commercial sex industry started before the age of 18.  Under federal law, any child engaged in prostitution is considered a trafficking victim.  Moreover, it is well established that violence and threats of violence are prevalent among traffickers and purchasers.  Thus, a substantial percentage of those engaged in prostitution are, in fact, trafficking victims.

Changes in the law and public policy

Too often the American criminal justice system treats trafficking victims as if they are criminals and too often allows the real criminals to act with impunity.  In 2016, for example, over 1,000 women in New York City were charged with prostitution-related offenses while in the same year only 26 people were charged under state law with sex trafficking.  Each time we arrest a victim, our system of criminal justice becomes a vehicle of injustice.  It is time for a different approach.

Only when we address the demand for prostitution will we begin to address human trafficking.  We need to arrest the traffickers, pimps, and purchasers.  We also need to recognize the limits of our criminal justice system.  There is so much money involved in human trafficking that long prison sentences alone (as with drug trafficking) will not solve the problem.

Public awareness and education

We need to educate the public about the connection between human trafficking and prostitution, and we especially need to teach youth in school that prostitution is not a harmless act.  Not only do we need to stop arresting victims, but we also need to find a way (beyond the criminal justice system) to provide the social services they need while enabling them to break free from the coercion and control of their traffickers.

This is a global issue and an enormous societal challenge, but there is hope.  Our Paris office recently started representing a foundation devoted to trafficking victims in criminal proceedings brought against traffickers.  The victims are not prosecuted in Paris.  We will highlight developments in France, and identify other best practices from around the world in future posts.

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Photo of William C. Silverman William C. Silverman

William C. Silverman is a partner responsible for leading Proskauer’s global pro bono efforts, which provide assistance to individual clients and nonprofit organizations in litigation as well as transactional matters. He focuses on identifying and securing pro bono opportunities and partnerships for Proskauer…

William C. Silverman is a partner responsible for leading Proskauer’s global pro bono efforts, which provide assistance to individual clients and nonprofit organizations in litigation as well as transactional matters. He focuses on identifying and securing pro bono opportunities and partnerships for Proskauer lawyers and ensuring widespread participation in these projects.

Bill has robust private and public sector experience and a strong criminal and civil background. He has worked extensively on government investigations and white collar criminal matters, as well as complex civil litigation in federal and state courts. He also served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, where he led criminal investigations, conducted trials and handled Second Circuit appeals.

Throughout his career, Bill has dedicated himself to the promotion of equal access to justice through pro bono service, particularly in the area of family court, anti-trafficking, and immigration.

Bill spearheaded a partnership among several law firms, corporations and the New York City Family Court to provide free legal advice to pro se litigants. The New York City Family Court Volunteer Attorney Program now has more than 400 volunteer attorneys from 40 major firms and corporations. Bill also helped build a coalition of organizations in a successful effort to secure additional Family Court judges in New York. He is now part of an effort spearheaded by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to simplify the New York Court System from 11 trial courts to three.

Bill serves as counsel to the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition. In that capacity he has been a strong advocate for changes in the law and public policy to protect victims of human trafficking and bring perpetrators to justice. He also represents individual clients in this area, including a successful federal lawsuit brought on behalf of a trafficking victim against her traffickers. For his work, he was named by domestic violence nonprofit Sanctuary For Families as one of “New York’s New Abolitionists.”

Bill has spoken at numerous conferences and events, including New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Hearings on Civil Legal Services and the American Bar Association’s Equal Justice Conference. In 2014, he attended a meeting at the White House with Vice President Joe Biden and other policymakers on the need for access to legal services in immigration proceedings.

Bill has been recognized for his public service with the Abely Pro Bono Leadership Award from Sanctuary For Families and Columbia Law School (2019); the Special Leadership Award for All-Around Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility & the Law from City & State Reports (2015); the Commitment to Justice Award for Outstanding Partner from inMotion (2008); and the Matthew G. Leonard Award for Outstanding Pro Bono Achievement from MFY Legal Services (2007).

Outside of his work at the firm, Bill serves on various committees and non-profit boards. Bill is currently chairman of the Fund for Modern Courts, a non-partisan citizen organization devoted to improving New York State courts, and is formerly chairman of Legal Information For Families Today (LIFT), an organization devoted to unrepresented litigants in Family Court.