Ohio court offers human trafficking victims recovery, not punishment
October 24, 2019 8:08 AM   Subscribe

Ten years ago, Judge Paul Herbert [...] noticed a trend. He was seeing lots of women who were abused and forced into sex work, but they were being treated like criminals. "The sheriff brings the next defendant out on the wall chained up," Herbert says, "and it's a woman and she's all beat up, she's looking exactly like one of these victims of domestic violence except she's in handcuffs and a jail suit. I look down at the file and it says prostitute." Herbert realized the law didn't recognize these women as victims of human trafficking. So he pitched the idea of a courtroom dedicated to recovery, not punishment. It's called CATCH Court, which stands for Changing Actions To Change Habits. A Pioneering Ohio Courtroom Helps Trafficking Victims Find Hope (NPR)

More from the NPR article:
At the start, CATCH was one of only a few such programs in the country.

There are now seven of these specialized courts in Ohio alone. There are similar programs in Texas, Illinois, Tennessee and Louisiana, and Herbert has helped cities get the courts up and running.

Here's how it works: The program takes care of housing and food — things the women would normally need from their trafficker. Participants get treatment for trauma and addiction, and they are eligible to get their records expunged.

In exchange, they're subject to drug testing and must show up in court every week for two years.

While it costs $200,000 a year to run CATCH Court, Herbert says that's a bargain.

"If you want to do nothing, you're going to keep spending $5.4 million a year to arrest and jail these women and have no improvement in the circumstance," Herbert says.
Warning: descriptions of human trafficking and abuse in both videos

CATCH COURT "Changing Actions to Change Habits" (4 min. YouTube video)

How I Escaped Sex Trafficking through CATCH Court (Vanessa Perkins, TEDx Ohio State University Salon, 14 minute YT)
posted by filthy light thief (19 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
CATCH has found success keeping women out of the system, regardless of if they cross the graduation stage — the recidivism rate for women in prostitution nationwide is 80%. That number drops by half for women enrolled in CATCH for any amount of time, and even further to 20% for the women who make it to graduation.

that is truly amazing.
posted by affectionateborg at 8:31 AM on October 24, 2019 [3 favorites]


It is an amazing result, but of course if sex work was not treated as illegal, these women would not have faced criminal charges in the first place. Then programs helping women who had been trafficked wouldn't rely on them being fucking arrested first.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:56 AM on October 24, 2019 [26 favorites]


Love to know what the economic and career path of the CATCH graduates looks like. It's one thing to say the recidivism rate dropped from 80% to 20%, but is this actually leading to some sort of freedom, or is it simply creating a different sort of low-wage exploited worker?

(Albeit hopefully one that isn't having to give her earnings to an abusive boyfriend. Hopefully.)
posted by straw at 9:02 AM on October 24, 2019 [3 favorites]


but of course if sex work was not treated as illegal, these women would not have faced criminal charges in the first place

That was my first thought, too. These women are abused and in need of help, yet somehow they're the criminals. Given the current system, this is a good outcome, but that doesn't mean the system is working.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:05 AM on October 24, 2019 [15 favorites]


This is an interesting chaser to the post below about how truly fucked virtually all aspects of the Pennsylvania "justice system" are.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:21 AM on October 24, 2019 [1 favorite]


That wasn't my intent, but it also feels appropriate.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:32 AM on October 24, 2019


If sex work is legal, how do women who are forced into it get help? I am not against legal sex work, and this situation is awful but, I am curious if there are people addressing this where sex work is legal.
posted by agregoli at 11:14 AM on October 24, 2019 [1 favorite]


If sex work is legal, how do women who are forced into it get help? I am not against legal sex work, and this situation is awful but, I am curious if there are people addressing this where sex work is legal.

You give them housing and services without involving the police, or by way of arresting traffickers. There is similar work with domestic violence intervention, adult social services, etc.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:19 AM on October 24, 2019 [9 favorites]


I have no doubt that many of the people involved mean well, but these programs encourage further and further erosion of the rights of victims. They're completely unacceptable.

2 years of drug testing with criminal sanctions attached is a totally out of line, unacceptable intrusion into these crime victim's lives. It's also common for the drug restrictions involved to bar doctor prescribed prescription drugs. I'm not even going to get started on what a pain in the neck it is if you're trying to have a job, take care of kids, and generally rebuild your life to have everything at the whim of some random judge. Requiring all of this with prison time being held over their head is cruel.

Additionally cruel is making people talk about their trauma, their personal psychological issues/healing/improvement, etc. to a judge who has the power to put them in jail. It's not okay.

Imagine that someone had to evacuate their home because of a fire and you made them come to court for two years afterwards, answer all kinds of intrusive questions, and drug test them. In exchange for giving them shelter or food. It's disturbing.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:24 AM on October 24, 2019 [19 favorites]


That was my first thought, too. These women are abused and in need of help, yet somehow they're the criminals. Given the current system, this is a good outcome, but that doesn't mean the system is working.

Ethnographic studies show that these kinds of courts are not really limited to "trafficking" victims, they're really prostitution courts. Trafficking is typically a heavily politically motivated framing device in order to justify providing relatively decent treatment, services, etc. (Good for them, honestly.) I would be surprised if even a third of the women involved were being trafficked in the sense most people think of it.

Of course, with SESTA-FOSTA and the crackdown on online prostitution, that may be changing---it makes it much harder for sex workers to work independently. Many sex workers have reported being forced into street/outdoors work, which is much more dangerous in a variety of ways.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:32 AM on October 24, 2019 [6 favorites]


My experience with trafficking support groups is that they tend to be faith-based treatment centers with little evidence-based treatment. I am thinking specifically of some facilities near Houston, which are run by a church group (who offers prostitution tours by bus for the [almost always white] gawkers of the street walks [women who sell sex on the street there are largely women of color]) that aims to get women into a rural area to "get them away" from their "traffickers" (often a boyfriend or significant other, and having the effect of also removing them from their support system).

Their results are methodologically concerning. They only surveyed 21 of 205 women. From what I can tell, women say it helps, especially the staff and the judge. (But wouldn't you say the same, faced with the alternate of going to jail?) They say it helped with housing and safety, which, great!

But: 79% either dropped out or were kicked out. And we see a comparison of the number of days in jail over the previous ten years, and women who graduate have substantially fewer days in jail in their last ten years. It's possible that women with fewer days in jail are more likely to graduate. So with regards to recidivism (which looks okay, stats-wise), it's not clear that CATCH is the reason. It looks to me like the women who graduate from CATCH are fundamentally different -- perhaps less time in sex work, less poor, more opportunities, literally anything -- than those who do not, which likely accounts for these differences. So even without the CATCH program, these women would have likely had fewer arrests and less time in jail. The analysis of the previous ten years indicates some sort of substantially different class membership among graduates than non-graduates.
posted by quadrilaterals at 12:35 PM on October 24, 2019 [11 favorites]


For its flaws, this is so much better than status quo, no? I suspect it was more sane but had a boatload of committee markups on it in order for it to get enacted.

As for the treated as a criminal, "...and they are eligible to get their records expunged."

Not perfect, but the intentions are good given a messed up situation.
posted by porpoise at 4:39 PM on October 24, 2019 [2 favorites]


agregoli makes a good point. We should also outlaw farming and fruit picking because human trafficking and worker exploitation are significant problems in the agricultural sector.

If agricultural work is legal, how do we get help for people forced into it?
posted by aussie_powerlifter at 6:40 PM on October 24, 2019 [3 favorites]


Sex work is a much more complicated field, physically and emotionally, and is further complicated because it's illegal in most places, so people who are sex workers against their will may not be comfortable going to the police, because they'd be seen as criminals instead of victims.

While the vast majority of workers is foreign-born and crossed a border to get here (NFWM), agricultural work is legal in all states, and it's the treatment of the workers that is often the concern. Human Trafficking Hotline has a page describing how to identify when farmwork becomes human trafficking, if you wanted to read about their definitions. But I'm not sure if that was your intent.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:04 AM on October 25, 2019


internet fraud detective squad, station number 9: I have no doubt that many of the people involved mean well, but these programs encourage further and further erosion of the rights of victims. They're completely unacceptable.

Thanks for reframing this. I was looking at it from the lens of bending the system for some better outcome, but you pointed out how this is the wrong way to do it.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:08 AM on October 25, 2019


For its flaws, this is so much better than status quo, no?

My main research is on drug courts (although I have read an enormous amount about prostitution/trafficking courts as well). In the drug court context, the answer is definitely no. There are three reasons why, all of which seem to apply here:

1) This is not an "alternative" to an incarceration sentence, because the threat of an incarceration sentence hangs over the head of the participants throughout the duration of the two year program and prevents them from moving on with their life, certain that they have experienced the extent of their punishment.

Incarceration is often a punishment (aka "consequence") that hangs over the head of participants in this program. That means they may, for example, "successfully" participate in this intrusive program for, say, a year, do something the judge doesn't like, and then end up in jail for just as long as they would have under a more "normal" sentencing circumstance. In other words, instead of 3 days in jail, they might end up with a year of "supervision" AND three days in jail. That sucks for them and it sucks to have it hanging over their head for that length of time.

It's also the case that should these women decide to drop out or "fail," courts may send these people to jail for longer terms than they otherwise would, because their "failure" to take advantage of their "opportunity" marks them as uncooperative, unsaveable, or as the bad type of prostitute.

Furthermore, the uncertainty of long duration and the fact that they have to stay in one place for years can be quite hard on people who are trying to move on psychologically and rebuild their lives economically. (Keep in mind that their record is fucked up until they "graduate," at a minimum. The geography issue is particularly relevant if they are trafficked; they might reasonably want to leave the immediate area where their trafficker is located but these programs don't let them do that.


2) Programs like these have been shown to increase overall arrests and the number of people in the "system." Instead of substituting for harsher punishments, they just add more capacity for the criminal justice system overall, in a process called "net-widening."

These programs are not "better than" the status quo if they don't actually displace the status quo, but instead, add to it. Not much more to say about this.


3) Putting judges in charge of "drug treatment" and allowing them to punish "failures" is illegal, immoral, and dangerous.

Finally, applicable to some, but not all participants, putting a court or a random, unregulated drug treatment "provider" in charge of "drug testing" and "treatment" for drug addiction can be seriously medically risky. The clinical standard treatments for opiate dependency, for example, often include medication assisted therapy (e.g. methadone). Judges in these programs do not have to allow participants to use methadone, even if it's prescribed and even if they're doing well on it. The result can be medically dangerous withdrawal. (MaiaS has written wonderfully about this topic in the drug court context.)

They can also keep participants from using other presecribed drugs just because, ya know, they feel like it. This is likely a violation of the ADA. It should be a violation of the Constitution (hard to get to court, but deeply violative of the spirit of the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and various due process clauses). And it is really, really wrong. People die without the medical treatment that they need, because they're "addicts" ad judges think they know what's best for them. It is disgusting and unacceptable by any measure.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:43 AM on October 25, 2019 [5 favorites]


Thanks for reframing this. I was looking at it from the lens of bending the system for some better outcome, but you pointed out how this is the wrong way to do it.

Honestly, it would probably work in some circumstances, but our system is stocked with people with really messed up beliefs. The problem is that often the only way to get funding for anything is to run it through the carceral system, but the downsides are pretty extreme in ways that are hard to fathom for people like you who are, frankly, likely too kind to be interested in e.g. arresting battered women in the first place.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:48 AM on October 25, 2019


As for the treated as a criminal, "...and they are eligible to get their records expunged."

That means they might never get their records expunged. In the meantime, they are totally fucked by the existence of their "record." They are also treated like criminals by being forced to come to court, forced to do drug tests, etc., an issue which is totally separate and apart from whether or not they have a "record."
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:49 AM on October 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


Thanks ifds,sn9 and quadrilaterals. I was frustrated and infuriated when I read that article and now I'm more frustrated, more infuriated and better educated.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:35 PM on October 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


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