County launches speciality court for victims of human trafficking

By Jo Mathis
Legal News
In the past few years, Washtenaw County has started specialty courts for peacemaking, for veterans, and for those struggling with mental health, sobriety, homelessness, domestic violence and addiction.
Now Washtenaw County has become the first in the state to start a specialty court specifically for victims of human trafficking.
 “People like to think prostitution is a victimless crime,” said Judge Charles Pope of Ypsilanti’s 14B District Court, who oversees the Washtenaw County Human Trafficking Specialty Court.  “But this is not Las Vegas here. This is not a regulated industry. These are people who are suffering from a lot of issues, including potentially exploitation.
“They’re victims of exploitation. They’re victims of their station in life. And I strongly believe that anytime we’re in a position to help them improve themselves, the community is better as a result.”
The Washtenaw County Human Trafficking Court (HTC) was launched this year, and is run in partnership with the University of Michigan Law School’s Human Trafficking Clinic, which is the first of its kind run by a law school.
HTC is supported by a $58,800 grant from the Michigan Supreme Court’s Court Innovation Fund. Funding ends Oct. 1, and new sources of funds are being sought.
In the past, courts relied primarily on incarceration because the recidivism rate tends to be high among prostitutes who are also dealing with problems surrounding substance abuse, housing, employment, mental health, and ancillary legal issues. Most have also experienced severe trauma, according to Pope. 
“What this program does is attempt to change the outlook toward this population,” he said, “so they’re not seen so much as criminals but as victims. Especially the ones for whom we believe are involved in exploitation.”
It’s another form of domestic violence that’s not been addressed until now, he said.
 “Just given the nature of the offense for which they’re convicted, they’re looked down upon by society and not people who are deserving of assistance.”
Referrals to the court are accepted from probation officers, criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges and law enforcement, and any case within Washtenaw County can be transferred pre or post-adjudication if the parties agree. A concurrent jurisdiction plan among Washtenaw District Courts means that all cases are cross-assigned, giving all of them the legal ability to handle each other’s cases.
“When we transfer a case back and forth, it’s really nothing more than sending an email to the receiving judge saying, ‘Hey, I have somebody who might fit your program,’” Pope said. “The file is sent over, and we take over from there. Just like we send people to Sobriety Court, Veterans Court, and so forth.” 
Prior to arraignment, the women are evaluated by Toni Malone, a project manager. The terms of their probation consist of an individualized rehabilitation plan based on that assessment. They’re given a court-appointed lawyer, and usually return to court a week later for a pretrial, when the cases are typically disposed of at that time. The women are ordered to an in-depth evaluation at the University of Michigan Law School’s Human Trafficking Clinic to determine if they are being exploited.
Probationary sentences are typically two years, which allows for HTC to develop a long-term relationship with each participant. Although not a probationary requirement, all HTC participants are offered a free civil legal consultation with the Human Trafficking Clinic.
Terms of probation include substance abuse and trauma counseling; engagement with a 12-step sponsor and recovery community; enrollment in school or employment; and regular contact with Malone.
Malone said the court has been both rewarding and challenging.
"The women we are working with are survivors and their individual drive and tenacity inspires me," she said. "I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of their recovery journeys."
All court-run specialty programs are designed to reduce recidivism, Pope said, as opposed to courts that are reactive rather than pro-active, getting cases after something bad has happened.
So far, six women have been brought to the new court, which meets every two weeks. While two have absconded, the others are progressing in their way out of prostitution, Pope said.
One of the women is doing exceptionally well, and has passed the threshold between treatment of substance abuse and recovery.
“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster ride,” Pope said. “It’s an interesting and difficult populatuion to deal with. As with a lot of cases like this, relapses are sometimes expected.”
The program is divided into two phases. In Phase One, they have to appear in court every two weeks for judicial review. Within seven days of sentencing, they obtain a substance abuse evaluation, and must participate at the recommended level, whether that’s out-patient or residential.
HTC is important because it has the potential to fundamentally change the way the criminal justice system responds to sex trafficking, said Elizabeth Campbell, an attorney at the University of Michigan Law School’s Human Trafficking Clinic, which offers free civil legal services to HTC participants. In the current system, victims of sex trafficking that interact with law enforcement and courts are nearly always criminalized, jailed and returned to their trafficker, she said. 
“This court provides an opportunity for the criminal justice system to recognize and protect victims and go after traffickers,” said Campbell. “The goal is to develop a model that can be used all over the state, and Washtenaw County is the ideal place for the pilot court because of the effective collaboration amongst courts, probation departments and law enforcement agencies, as well as the robust social services options in the community.”
Human trafficking is a global crime that can be simply described as compelled service, Campbell said. 
“By definition, human trafficking isolates and exploits people, making them invisible to the world,” she said. “As a result, very little is known about the prevalence of human trafficking. It is particularly challenging to know the scope of sex trafficking since victims of sex trafficking are constantly at risk of being criminalized for prostitution and solicitation and therefore don’t report to authorities.”
Campbell explained that when law enforcement and court systems fail to recognize victims and instead treat them as criminals, the power of the trafficker—who likely warned the victim she would be the one arrested—is reinforced and the victim becomes further isolated. 
The Washtenaw County Human Trafficking Specialty Court help solves the issue of sex trafficking one person at a time, Pope said.
“Any time we’re in a position to assist that type of population,” he said, “I think our community is better as a whole.”