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Bridge Michigan
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Are prostitutes lawbreakers or trafficking victims?

About two years ago, Cathy Justice stood before Judge Charles Pope of Ypsilanti’s 14B District Court fully expecting to be sent back to jail. She even wore an extra layer of socks and clothing to the court hearing.

On probation, Justice had relapsed and failed a drug test two weeks earlier. She was a crack cocaine addict who had prostituted herself, on and off, for a decade to pay for her addiction. Her dealer threatened that he needed to be paid back immediately, and coerced her to rent a hotel room and turn tricks for fast cash, so she could continue using. As a result, Justice said, she was a familiar presence at the Washtenaw County jail, jailed variously on drug and solicitation offenses.

“Who would have thought that when I was in third grade I would have raised my hand and told the class that I’d become a crack smoker and prostitute?” she told Bridge Magazine of her history.

But as she stood before Judge Pope in 2014, Justice would not be treated as another prostitute with a drug habit. For this was the Washtenaw County Human Trafficking Court — the first of its kind in Michigan.

The court is an initiative of the University of Michigan Law School’s Human Trafficking Clinic, with the goal of “treating victims as victims and not as criminals,” said Elizabeth Campbell, a clinical assistant professor at the clinic.

“The idea is to slow things down and assess whether people engaged in commercial sex could be victims of human trafficking,” Campbell said.

“The most powerful message we can send is who we choose to prosecute.”

A surprising sentence

The court provides free legal services to people, like Justice, who come before it — almost all of whom, Judge Pope said, have problems with substance abuse, mental health, housing, jobs and childcare.

To Justice’s great surprise, Pope didn’t send her back to jail. He didn’t even show her a look of disappointment, she recalled. Instead, he beckoned her to the courtroom podium and asked what happened, why she had relapsed and failed a drug test.

“I gave him a generic answer that every addict gives,” remembered Justice. “What I should have said was, ‘I don’t know what I did, I don’t know who I am. Some people like their eggs cooked over-easy, but I don’t even know how I like my eggs. Because I don’t know who I am’.”

“He told me, ‘Cathy, you came to me and asked for help. I want to help you. By the guidelines of the court, you have to do X, X and X and not Y. But because you chose to come to court today, I’m going to release you. You’re obviously making some progress. … I can’t promise you’ll get your life back, but if you have an open mind, great things will come, and you’ll meet a new person you’ve never known. You might actually like her’.”

“I promised him that when I walked out of that courtroom I would take this program 110 percent serious,” said Justice.

By all accounts, she has. She worked with Judge Pope and court social worker Toni Malone, who provides 12-step group and individual therapy sessions and tries to create a safe environment that encourages the women to open up about their life in the sex trade and what, or who, may be keeping them in it.

Giving women a new perspective

The trafficking court has worked with 18 people and in each case, Malone said, she must break down a wall to identify women who may be a victim of others. “At first, not a single one acknowledges that anyone is profiting off of them.”

In order to create a therapeutic environment, Malone decorates her walls with color and artwork. “You wouldn’t think you’re in a courthouse,” she laughed. “Courthouses tend to be sterile. I’ve created a warm and inviting space.”

Her office walls sport inspirational and positive messages such as “take it one day at a time” and “enjoy the little things in life”. She has couches. On another wall is a collage of pictures from magazines that her subjects cut out to show how trauma has affected their lives.

“When women feel physically more comfortable, they feel emotionally more comfortable,” said Malone. “They can open up and do the important work with trauma.”

Malone said she is proud of the impact her therapy sessions and the Washtenaw County Human Trafficking Court have had.

“The individuals actively participating in the program have had zero additional interactions with law enforcement,” said Malone. “The majority of them are working. Instead of being incarcerated on our dime, they are paying taxes. Many are volunteering in the recovery world.”

New life, renewed prospects

Cathy Justice said she has been clean since March 28, 2014. Last September, Judge Pope announced to the courtroom that she had graduated from the court’s alternative program for women like Justice. Instead of a relatively easy 23 days in county jail, she had completed the long and difficult 18-month recovery program.

“This group have all suffered significant trauma in their lives,” Pope told Bridge. “I’m careful with them, protective of them. This type of work is measured person-to-person. We deal with each individual and hope that we can help one person succeed.”

She later returned to the judge and asked for help finding a job. “You are worth more than running a cash register,” the judge told her. He suggested she take a training course and become a peer support specialist for the Human Trafficking Court.

Justice passed her test on her second try in last July and three months later became employed by the court as a certified drug recovery specialist who mentors other women working with the court to turn their life around. “The first thing I do with them is to share my own story. There’s nothing they can’t tell me that I don’t already understand.”

Cops in the know

Campbell, of UM, said police as well as courts need to reconsider how they view prostitutes with drug or other problems. Too often, they see a lawbreaker instead of a victim of trafficking who was coerced or tricked into the sex trade by a dealer, a pimp, or even an abusive family member.

“Michigan has gotten better about being victim centered, but has not gone far enough,” said Campbell. “There are prosecutors out there who still see a reason to prosecute them for prostitution.”

Campbell sees improvement in police officers recognizing that an otherwise run-of-the-mill prostitution or drug case could involve human trafficking, but not all officers receive training to identify trafficking.

“What’s frustrating for me is when I am asked to come in and facilitate a training,” said Campbell. “Officers will come to me afterward and say ‘I didn’t know what else to do except arrest them.’ Until we give (officers) a different set of tools, we can’t be upset with law enforcement.”

Michigan now requires state police officers to take trafficking training. Many city and municipal police detectives also take training. The course teaches police to identify indicators of trafficking, ask the right questions of people in a vehicle, and work together with local, state and federal law enforcement, said State Police Sgt. Edward Price, who travels the state to teach courses.

The training, part of a partnership between the Michigan State Police and the Washington, D.C.-based International Association of Chiefs of Police, includes discussion around six video trafficking scenarios, including a traffic stop, a domestic violence call, a high school scenario, a hospital scene, and a hotel loud noise complaint.

Looking for evidence

Price talked about some of the indicators of trafficking that police should look for. “Is the hotel room in (the woman’s) name or another name? If there’s an ad (on, is there more than one woman associated with the ad? Is there a guy’s clothing in the room? Does she have tattoos in the pimp’s name? Does she have bruises?”

Price said most officers who take the course have an open mind on finding some element or coercion in an otherwise routine call, but that it will take time to convince all police to not assume that a prostitute is acting on her own free will and should be arrested for breaking the law.

“Like domestic violence, it took a while for the mindset to change,” said Price. “With trafficking, people are slowly being educated. Once they have the training, I’d say 99.9 percent of the officers get it. Some raise their hand in class and say, ‘I wish I knew this. I came across a victim a year ago.’”

Being on guard for signs of trafficking is credited for the arrest last year in Leelanau County of a Grand Rapids man, who was prosecuted for supplying two heroin addicts with drugs and forcing them into prostitution.

“This was the first trafficking incident in Leelanau County history,” said Sheriff Mike Borkovich. “It’s a very infrequent thing up here. Still we are making our deputies aware of it.”

While training is mandatory for state police, Price conceded that many city or municipal law enforcement officers have not received it.

Jane White at the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force estimates that 65 percent of Michigan police officers have not received trafficking training. And specialized training for prosecutors and judges has been largely unavailable.

The Washtenaw County Human Trafficking Court stands virtually alone in counseling victims and helping them get back on their feet.

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