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Ohio Court Program Helps Victims Of Human Trafficking

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A diversion program for victims of human trafficking is spreading to cities across the country. The model has its roots in Columbus, Ohio, where a judge decided to direct women towards rehabilitation instead of jail. From member station WOSU, Paige Pfleger reports.

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: Ten years ago, Judge Paul Herbert was sitting in a Columbus courtroom when he noticed a trend. He was seeing lots of women who were abused and forced into sex work, but they were being treated like criminals.

PAUL HERBERT: And the sheriff brings the next defendant out on the wall chained up, and it's a woman, and she's all beat up. She's looking exactly like one of these victims of domestic violence, except for she's in handcuffs and a jail suit. I looked down at the file, and it said prostitute.

PFLEGER: 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. That stands for Changing Actions To Change Habits.

HERBERT: We didn't have the vocabulary that we do - even the vocabulary, let alone the way society looked at these women. So it was pretty much a - we were kind of a laughing stock.

PFLEGER: At the start, CATCH was one of only a few such programs in the country. Now there are seven of these specialized courts in Ohio alone. There are similar programs in Texas, Illinois, Tennessee and Louisiana, and Herbert has helped some cities get courts up and running. Here's how it works. The program takes care of housing and food, things the women would normally rely on their trafficker for. Participants get treatment for trauma and addiction and 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, Judge Herbert says that's a bargain.

HERBERT: 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 this circumstance.

PFLEGER: But this program is intense. Fewer than 1 in 4 of the women enrolled make it to graduation. Esther Flores runs a safe house for women in sex work and says CATCH is great for those who graduate but doesn't do enough for the women who don't.

ESTHER FLORES: We had a person who left their house, and she was a CATCH Court dropout. I can probably tell you I've probably had about maybe 15 this year.

PFLEGER: Some women drop out because they get jobs and don't need the assistance, but Flores says she has seen others end up back on the street. Vanessa Perkins is one of CATCH's first successful graduates. Perkins was sexually abused as a young girl and started drinking and doing drugs when she was only 12.

VANESSA PERKINS: I became addicted to drugs, and then the trafficker found me. So he preyed on my vulnerabilities on purpose, knew what he was doing. From drug addiction to love to family to loyalty, he preyed on all of that stuff that I was missing.

PFLEGER: In a twist Perkins says she never could have imagined, years after completing the program, Judge Herbert asked her to be the bailiff in his court, the very court that helped her recover. Now she helps other women who are going through what she did years ago.

PERKINS: But there are some that have, like, a real reaction. Like, if you can do it, I can do it, especially if I happened to be out there with them because there's people that come in that we was on the street together.

PFLEGER: CATCH has found success keeping women out of the system regardless of if they crossed 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. For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger in Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAS OF YEARS' "MESOPELAGIC TRANSMISSIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.