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An Inspired Courtroom
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Women who face solicitation charges in a Columbus, Ohio courtroom are offered a choice between jail time or the opportunity to enter the Changing Actions to Habits Program (CATCH). This unique jail diversion program offers women the chance to exit lives marked by homelessness, trauma, substance use, and incarceration. Judge Paul Herbert shares the story of the special docket’s innovative approach with the HRC’s Wendy Grace Evans.

Judge Paul Herbert’s daughter asked what his purpose was in life. He responded that it was to uphold the law and treat people with equality. After some thought, he realized that he had given her a generic answer. He wasn’t entirely sure of his purpose. He was bored by his work. “In my heart, I knew that I didn’t know my real purpose,” said Judge Herbert. This question grew roots in his mind. He asked for guidance to be of service to his community, Columbus Ohio, and the Franklin County Municipal Court System.

Guidance appeared six months later in arraignment court after a holiday. “It was a sea of total despair. I listened to 35 testimonies from domestic violence victims. I saw women who were beat up, hurt, disheveled and lost,” said Paul. Following these cases, a female defendant was brought in on solicitation charges. “She looked similar to the women I had seen earlier in the day. I started thinking about women with solicitation charges differently,” said Paul. Prior to this moment, Paul had always viewed prostitution as a victimless crime. He had viewed prostitution as a choice, but he could not reconcile the fact that this woman looked like she had been hurt very badly.

The national statistics are chilling. Ninety six percent of women who work as prostitutes enter this work as youth runaways. Thirty three percent enter prostitution before the age of 15, and 62 percent before the age of 18 (Silbert, 1984). Eighty two percent of women working as prostitutes are physically assaulted, 68 percent have been raped while working, and 27 percent by multiple assailants. Eighty three percent of women have been threatened with a weapon. Seventy five percent of women who work as prostitutes will attempt suicide. The average life expectancy of a woman engaged in prostitution is age 34 (Shapiro, 2004). Drug and alcohol use are nearly universal among women who work as prostitutes.

In Columbus, Ohio, approximately 1,200 women a year face solicitation charges, a high number compared to other metropolitan areas. Most communities are not prepared to address the complex needs of women who have lived as prostitutes,” says Paul. The women’s needs include treatment for substance use disorders, depression and other mental health needs, post traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injury.

Paul shares that the story he hears over and over again from women is that it is not a story about choice. It is a story about survival. After a childhood marked by sexual abuse, and poverty, young girls leave home to escape. Once on the street, a girl is taken in by a man who gives her clothes, food, and listens to her. Drugs and alcohol are a significant piece of this story and eventually he tells her that she has to earn her place. He becomes her “dope boy,” a term that has replaced the term “pimp” and she enters the violent world of human trafficking, addiction, and further desperation.

With support from the county and other judges, Paul created a special prostitution docket for women with solicitation charges, called The Changing Actions to Habits Program (CATCH). “In this courtroom, women are encouraged to develop their own voices, advocate for themselves, and feel safe,” says Andrea Boxill, Director of all Specialty Docket Courts.

Women who face solicitation charges in Judge Herbert’s courtroom are offered a choice between 30 days to 6 months of jail time, or the opportunity to enter the CATCH Program. The program targets women with no less than three prior convictions and no more than 15. Exceptions are made for this rule if the public defender thinks a woman needs to be evaluated.

The CATCH program offers a chance for recovery. A woman interested in being admitted to the CATCH program goes through a pre-assessment process and meets with Judge Herbert in the courtroom with other women. Women are drug tested on a regular basis, have curfews, and must comply with stay away zones (areas of the city they must avoid). Participants may have GPS monitors for house arrest and alcohol detection.

Approximately 90 percent of the women are referred to Amethyst Inc., a trauma informed, gender specific, tobacco free program for women and children who are transitioning out of homelessness. Individual treatment programs vary depending on a woman’s needs and situation. For women who complete the program, most are eligible to have their conviction dismissed and expunged. Goals include sustained recovery, employment, reunification with family, and independent living.

Recently a woman was offered a time-served sentence, but chose Judge Herbert’s program of recovery instead. Rather than serve time in jail, she chose a longer temporary stay in jail with transition to a recovery center. She told the authorities, “Send me to Herbert’s court. Otherwise, I am going to die.” Another woman turned herself in and said, “Please send me to jail and let me wait for Herbert’s program. I can’t make it out here.” Today she is sober and thriving in a treatment facility.

Of the 29 women who have entered the program, 19 are succeeding. “It is not an easy program, but it is easier than looking over your shoulder wondering if you are going to make it through the night. Of the women who come through the system, 90 percent are saying, ‘yes, we want to do this program,” says Andrea Boxill.

“We want the women in our program to know they are important and special. They have legitimate needs and requests. Women’s organizations are now joining our team with phenomenal resources, power, and love. Today I tell my daughter that my purpose is to help women. I love every second of this. When I am doing this, I am not working anymore,” says the good judge.

Sources

Shapiro, Deborah L. February 2004. “Violence in Indoor and Outdoor Prostitution Venues,” Jody Raphael Center for Impact Research.

Silbert, Mimi H. 1984. “Treatment of Prostitute Victims of Sexual Assault” Van Nostrand Reinhold.

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