Sarah J Hurley

CATCH Court: A new Approach to the Oldest Profession

In a small municipal courtroom in Columbus, Ohio, a group of thirty-some people converses over lunch amidst hugs, smiles, and encouragement. In attendance are CATCH Court participants, a couple CATCH Court graduates, drop-outs who are drawn back in, volunteers, and mentors. I am introduced to the group who listens attentively and acknowledges my presence.
After about an hour, a staff member (who is also a licensed social worker) comes in and leads the women through a group exercise. She tells the women she loves them all and talks about “running amok.” She is direct and firm, and yet somehow very loving and nurturing. She is a woman who knows her purpose and seems to have been made for this role. She wraps up her session and takes a seat next to the bench.
Enter Judge Paul Morgan Herbert.
Judge Herbert presides over this municipal court and is the creator of the CATCH Program. CATCH is a 2-year program for women with prostitution charges, most of whom were trafficked. The focus of the program is on long-term, comprehensive care for these women including housing, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, and mentoring/relationship.
Prior to CATCH, the recidivism rate for prostitution charges was over 99%. So when Judge Herbert proposed a new program, people let him go for it… once they could contain their laughter. After all, it couldn’t get any worse. Fast forward a little more than 5 years later, and here are some of the outcomes:
  • Twelve percent of CATCH participants have successfully completed the rigorous two-year program <strong>(a 120% improvement).
  • Of those who stay in the program for a minimum of 6 months, 72% incur no future charges.
  • The cost associated with these cases has decreased from $5.5 Million to $200,000. That’s a $4.3 million dollar savings.
Not as many people are laughing now.
Judge Herbert didn’t always champion the human trafficking cause, however. So, what happened? What got him from viewing much of prostitution as the oldest profession to viewing it as the oldest oppression? After praying to God to reveal the purpose of his life, he was in court looking through domestic violence case files. Page after page of beaten and battered women looked up at him with defeat, hopelessness, and despair in their eyes. Then, in walked a woman with a prostitution charge. For the first time, Judge Herbert made the connection. This woman looked the same as a domestic violence victim! Things began to change from there.
Now, if you’re able to sit in on a CATCH Court session, you will hear him say things to the women like, “I’m going to show you grace”, “You’re a precious soul”, “I’m worried about you”, “You’re on the right track. I’m sorry you have to go through this.” And the girls will say things like, “My life looks different today,” and “I play the tape all the way through now. I just do the next right thing”. The court session is part court, part NA meeting, part support group, and it is beautiful and inspiring. The women support and encourage one another and walk through the journey together.
Two points here:
1.) Prostitution and human trafficking are not mutually exclusive. Most prostitutes are trafficking victims. And whether trafficked or not, both have the same risk factors, as well as environmental and relational contributors that lead women to the streets. When 1,500 prostitution arrests are made to one sole arrest for solicitation of a prostitute, something is wrong. Judge Herbert understands that demand must be targeted to ever truly make a difference and he’s got plans for that, as well.
2.) This program works. Whether you look at this program from a cost perspective, a psychosocial perspective, recidivism rate, etc., you can not deny the numbers.
After witnessing CATCH Court in action, speaking to Judge Herbert, partnering agencies and NGO’s, and CATCH Participants (both current and previous), I am a believer. I hope this program springs up throughout the country and I hope Indianapolis is next.

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