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Blowin' Up
by Karen Pecota

Blowin' Up is the term used by those in "the life" of prostitution who choose to leave their pimp/sex trafficker.

Directed by filmmaker, Stephanie Wang-Breal, her documentary feature Blowin' Up is about an experimental courtroom in Queens, New York, that works to give those who are arrested for prostitution and human trafficking-related charges an opportunity to exit "the life" legally. This particular courtroom advocates for such women and rather than bring them to trial they present a human side of the justice system. One that is unique, controversial and difficult.

The controversy is because this court questions the sex workers’ criminality. It's unique in that this is the courtroom for second chances and freedom from a life of bondage--it's a model of grace. It's difficult for both professionals: those residing over this courtroom and the sex workers themselves because each must choose a consequential path. The law is to hold to the boundaries offered and the worker is to abide by their commitment.

The majority of women who are serviced in this courtroom are young Asians and African-Americans. The courtroom is one of the first of its kind to not make judgements according to their lifestyle because many did not choose the profession. It is a vicious circle once involved and extremely dangerous to find an exit.

The Honorable Judge Toko Serita presides over the Queens County Criminal Court (Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court) and has worked hard to build an all-female team of professionals to walk alongside each one summoned to appear in her court. Out of respect she never refers to the defendants as prostitutes.

The Honorable Serita says straight up to each female summoned who present themselves before her, "This court is not interested in seeing you as a criminal." She speaks to the defendants in a warm and caring manner. In one case we hear Judge Serita as she is trying to recognize one defendant asking if she had arraigned her already. Making the connection Judge Serita continues, "Yes, I did. And, I am happy you're here and not somewhere else."

She then proceeds to clearly lay the ground rules for an opportunity of a lifetime. She explains that they are given legal counsel by public defender, Eliza Hook. They do not have to plead guilty or not guilty to an offense, criminal or otherwise, but they can simply agree to a six-month counseling program offered by the state. If in the six-months they have not been arrested again, the charges are dropped and their case is sealed. Judge Serita stresses that if one participates in the program it is not an admission of guilt. The Honorable Serita is mainly concerned that the women spend very little time in court and more time with those who will invest in their well-being within the allotted time of the program. She believes that about 80 % of the defendants opt to take the counseling program.

Similar to stories that present “a day in the life of....”, Wang-Beal allows the film audience to be a fly-on-the-wall observing the Honorable Judge Serita's daily courtroom activities and to follow each featured participant in and outside the courtroom to tell their story, an extraordinary model in which courts across America should consider administering.