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NEW YORK (AP) New York is creating the nation's first statewide system of courts to help prostitutes escape a life of exploitation and violence and move on to productive lives, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said Wednesday.

"We have come to recognize that the vast majority of children and adults charged with prostitution offenses are commercially exploited or at risk of exploitation," Lippman told attorneys, advocates for women and service providers at a breakfast meeting in Manhattan.

"Human trafficking is a crime that inflicts terrible harm on the most vulnerable members of society: victims of abuse, the poor, children, runaways, immigrants," Lippman said. "It is in every sense a form of modern-day slavery. We cannot tolerate this practice in a civilized society, nor can we afford to let victims of trafficking slip between the cracks of our justice system."

Lippman said that while human trafficking includes labor trafficking, nearly 80 percent of victims in New York are trafficked for sex.

Most are U.S. citizens, Lippman said. "It is not just halfway across the globe. It is around the corner from all of us," he said.

Three pilot courts in Queens, midtown Manhattan and Nassau County are up and running. The specialized courts will be operating throughout New York City by mid-October and around the state by the end of October.

The courts will have presiding judges trained in the dynamics of sex trafficking and the services available to victims.

Lippman said the courts will identify appropriate defendants and refer them to services "that will assist them in leading productive lives, rather than sending them right back to the grip of their abusers."

He said the initiative "will stop the pattern of shuffling trafficking victims through our criminal courtrooms without addressing the underlying reasons why they are there in the first place."

Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said the project will be a model for the nation and should improve the lives of countless victims.

"We have to think differently about how we prosecute prostitution cases and who we prosecute to combat the exploitation and the demand that fuel human trafficking," Rice said.

Steven Banks, attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society of New York City, said treating the victims of sex trafficking as criminals can hamper their ability to secure housing, employment and financial aid for education. "Our clients in these cases are the victims of crimes," Banks said. "They've been branded in many cases on their bodies by people treating them as if they are nothing more than property."

Lippman introduced a young woman named Lakisha who he said was coerced into prostitution at age 12 and has since been able to free herself from exploitation.

The woman, who would not give her last name, said afterward that she would tell fellow trafficking victims, "Accept the help that's being given. Don't be afraid."