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The good Fight: Pro bono work isn't very glamorous, but it can make a big difference

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Jessica Kitson, managing attorney, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, and Geoff Rosamond, partner, McCarter & English.
Jessica Kitson, managing attorney, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, and Geoff Rosamond, partner, McCarter & English. - ()

The woman had been beaten badly with a pipe.

Even worse, she had been branded by her tormentor, who burned his trademark into her skin.

When she walked into Superior Court in Atlantic City last June, she clearly was a victim of a human trafficking ring, from which she had recently escaped.

She also was a convicted criminal.

When people think of pro bono work, they usually picture poor people who need legal representation for petty crimes.

McCarter & English partner and former Bergen County prosecutor Geoff Rosamond, in partnership with Jessica Kitson from Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, is changing that.

For them, pro bono work can be life-changing aid for society’s most unfortunate. In this case, it was a victim of human trafficking that preferred anonymity.

The victim had numerous convictions for prostitution in several states, including New Jersey.

The fastest-growing criminal industry
According to an FBI report, human trafficking is the fastest-growing business in organized crime today.
And human trafficking is not just an international crisis: It’s a growing business close to home. Just last month, five missing teenagers from Atlantic and Cumberland counties were found after being sold into a human trafficking ring.
“Some would view human trafficking as an international problem,” said Geoff Rosamond, partner at McCarter & English and former Bergen County prosecutor. “People think victims come to the U.S. from other countries and, through a series of circumstances, are forced into labor or sex. But our client is a good example that this is a problem for women and men who are born and raised here in the United States.”
One of the reasons this false perception exists could be due to a lack of accurate records.
“The trafficking report the State Department puts out every year didn’t include the United States until 2010,” said Jessica Kitson of the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. “That is why this is perceived as an international issue, because for a long time we’ve been talking about what’s going on in other countries and how they need to handle it.
“But it’s only been for the last five years that we’ve been talking about it as a problem here. And it is a very real problem: Four of the five cases we are currently working on were born in the United States.”
Law enforcement has been cracking down. According to reports submitted to the state Attorney General’s Office, arrests for human trafficking have nearly doubled from eight in 2013 to 14 so far this year. 

Rosamond and Kitson successfully got this victim’s conviction vacated under the recently adopted Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act.

“The real benefit of the statute is that it goes to the heart of the conviction and renders it null and void,” Rosamond said. “That removes obstacles for employment down the road. As Gov. (Chris) Christie said when the law was enacted, this is really to protect the most vulnerable victims in our society.”

The act was passed in New Jersey in 2013 and allows the court to vacate prostitution offenses and related crimes if the convicted person can show he or she was actually a victim of sex trafficking at the time of conviction.

This was a landmark case as it was the first “vacatur” of its kind in the state.

“We went down a road no one had gone down before,” Rosamond said. “No petition had ever been filed, and the statute is somewhat silent as to procedure. We had to figure out what will be the best mechanism going forward when filing the appropriate documents.

“I think we’ve set the stage for future applications.”

Rosamond, Kitson and Emily Goldberg, director of McCarter & English’s pro bono program, developed New Jersey’s first legal project for victims of sex trafficking.

Pro Bono basics
The American Bar Association states  lawyers should offer at least 50 hours of service to clients who cannot pay.
While attorneys are under no official obligation to do pro bono work, it is a considered an ethical and professional obligation.
In New Jersey, attorneys can be called upon by the courts to provide pro bono representation for indigent defendants in cases of violation of domestic restraining orders, municipal appeals and parole revocation hearings.
To be exempt from being called, attorneys have to complete at least 25 hours of approved pro bono work per year and report it to the state.

“We want to reframe the way these victims are viewed,” Kitson said. “Right now, they are viewed as criminals, but they aren’t criminals and they never were. They are victims.”

McCarter, in partnership with the VLJ, hosted a seminar in 2014 to get their attorneys up-to-speed on the Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act. On November 17th, they will host a similar seminar that will be open to any lawyers interested in learning more about the act, this landmark case and what they can do to help.

“We are really proud of being part of the driving force to get this project off the ground,” Goldberg said. “Pro bono work can follow a legal services model of delivering services to people in need, and the law is fairly well established in these cases. Or, it can involve high impact cases where you are working with new laws or pushing laws in new directions. This project was a high impact litigation because the law is so new.”

Rosamond and Kitson hope the success of this first case will result in more victims coming forward.

“At the time of the convictions, it is very unlikely for victims to self-identify as trafficking victims,” Kitson said. “There are many reasons for that. They are terrified and being threatened on a fairly regular basis.”

Vacating a prostitution conviction is a state-by-state process. Many trafficking victims have convictions in several states and have to go through the vacatur process several times to completely erase their records.

New Jersey is one of 23 states with similar acts on the books.

“My sincere hope is that one day we won’t have to do this work anymore because no victims will be convicted, but we are a long way away from that,” Kitson said. “The act displays the desire for that, but a lot more pieces have to be in place for that to happen.”

Both Rosamond and Kitson said their investment of time and energy in this case was well worth it.

“Our hope is that future petitions are more streamlined going forward,” Rosamond said. “We paved the trail and hopefully that relief will be granted to many other victims.”

E-mail to: dariam@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @dariameoli

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