Specialized Court Dockets: CATCH Court & Beyond

For this final blog post, I would like to explore the idea of specialized courts in the area of human trafficking. I have had the opportunity to watch and experience CATCH Court in Franklin County over the past few years and it really is just such an incredible model that I believe should be replicated all over the country. It is an extremely effective way to handle these types of victim-defendants of women that have been trafficked. Women in these situations are referred to as “victim-defendants” because they are technically a defendant being charged with prostitution or solicitation in the criminal justice system, yet they are clearly a victim of being trafficked. I would like to dive deeper into the specifics of CATCH Court, as well as look as what other courts around the country are doing.

First, I would like to discuss how prostitution and solicitation crimes are currently handled in most court systems currently. Under Ohio law, when a woman is convicted of prostitution or solicitation, she will face very serious consequences that will stay with her for the rest of her life such as lengthy prison terms, high fees/fines, and the possibility of being labeled a sex offender (1). The various prostitution and solicitation offenses are in the range from fourth degree to first degree felonies, which carry prison sentences of at least one year and up to ten years. The fines associated with these convictions range from $10,000 to $20,000. These convictions place extremely high burdens on women who are often helpless and abused, and unable to meet the requirements, and eventually fall right back into the cycle, because they aren’t getting the proper help they need. The situation is the same for most other states around the country – severe consequences and no true healing for these women. The implementation of specialized courts for human trafficking related cases is vital and we need more of them desperately.

Putting women in jail for crimes of prostitution and solicitation in situations where the women were trafficked creates a terrible cycle that pushes them to run right back to their traffickers as soon as they are out of prison. The women serve their time and are let go, nothing more and nothing. They are not given any sort of resource or any information on how to get help if they are in a dangerous situation. Because they now have a record, it is almost impossible for them to get any sort of job, and the only life they know is the one they were living before they were put in jail, so that is what they run back to. With the use of specialized courts, these women can find resources and help. They will be able to be connected to people who can provide them with counseling, jobs, and support. According to the National Institute of Justice, one of the main goals of specialized courts in general is to attain “therapeutic jurisprudence to reduce criminal offending through therapeutic and interdisciplinary approaches that address addiction and other underlying issues… (2)”  Specialized courts are necessary to deal with victims of human trafficking because the state court system is simply too general to effectively deal with the issues that underlie solicitation and prostitution charges.

While not much has been done so far in terms of specialized courts for human trafficking, there is CATCH Court in Franklin County, as well as a few different models in other areas around the country. Franklin County Municipal Court Judge Paul Herbert created the CATCH Court in 2009. CATCH Court has had great success since its start and is a clear indication that specialized courts is the best way to deal with human trafficking cases. CATCH Court “blends punitive sentences with a 2-year treatment-oriented non adversarial program for rearrested prostitutes who suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome, depression, and drug addiction (3).” According to research, in its first 5 years, CATCH Court served 130 victim-defendants. During the two-year treatment program, the participants have strict guidelines that are geared towards helping them break unhealthy habits and break contact with dangerous people. At the end of the two years, upon successful completion, their prostitution and/or solicitations charges are dropped completely, allowing them to enter back into society without the stigma of being a felon (4). I believe that the reason that CATCH has worked as well as it has is because it truly removes the trafficked women from the system of violence they have been living in and gives them a genuine fresh start to life. Not only does CATCH Court provide the women with counseling and community, it provides them with resources to get involved and back on their feet. Freedom A-la-Carte, for example, is a catering business in Columbus that employs victims of human trafficking, many coming from the CATCH program.

There a few effective elements of the Franklin County CATCH Court that are worth taking a deeper look at. First, Judge Herbert is invested in this issue and has worked to obtain a wealth of knowledge on the subject. Franklin County did not just come up with this idea and then pick a judge by random to run the program. Judge Herbert created the idea himself and brought it to the court. This idea came to him when he kept seeing the same women in his courtroom for similar charges, and they very closely resembled those women he would see in domestic violence situations (5). Judge Herbert became educated because he was passionate in putting an end to this terrible cycle. Another important element to the CATCH Program is that it is rigid and not easy to complete. It does not give these women an easy way out, because that would put them right back into their former lives. The purpose of CATCH Court is to rehabilitate the victims and give them the resources they need to start a new life. CATCH Court also requires extreme cooperation and respect among the parties – the law enforcement, the judge, and the women. This Court takes the approach of a partnership, rather than a prosecutor versus defendant. In order for a specialized court like this to be truly effective, all parties must have the same goal in mind.

A similar court to CATCH Court was created in Wilmington, Delaware, which goes by the name of the Victim Advocacy and Safety Enhancement Project. The court was created when lawmakers and stakeholders kept seeing an overlap between women being charged with felonies who suffered from mental health disorders and people who were part of their specialized trauma court (misdemeanor-level) (6). This court brought together those issues to focus on victim-defendants with issues of trauma and abuse, often stemming from prostitution and trafficking. This court, like CATCH Court, has seen great success in its years since creation. There are a few explicit reasons for this. First, the court focuses on the use of screening tools for trauma and prostitution-related issues, which helps to ensure that the sole focus of the specialized court docket is those issues. Second, very similar to CATCH Court, Wilmington’s court provides the victim-defendants with various resources and provides services to help them get back on their feet and work through the trauma they have dealt with internally for so long. The third extremely effective element of this specialized court is that the court created training programs that the judges overseeing the specialized court are required to go through that help them better understand the needs and thought processes of the victim-defendants of human trafficking.

While the Victim Advocacy and Safety Enhancement Project and CATCH Court certainly differ in some of the ways that they operate, they are both based largely on the same principles. Both programs really focus on providing the victim-defendants with the proper resources that they need. Both systems also place a large emphasis on treating the women with care and respect. They make it a top priority to understand what the women have gone through by requiring trainings and experts to be a part of the programs.

In conclusion, in order to stop the vicious cycle that keeps swallowing up women who are victim to human trafficking, more states must implement specialized courts to deal with this population and these solicitation and prostitution charges. As discussed in this post, state court systems are simply not enough to deal effectively with this issue. The state system is too general and law enforcement officials do not have the knowledge needed to properly deal with the issues. Courts around the country should strive to model CATCH and the Victim Advocacy Court to better their ways of dealing with human trafficking. The biggest first step is making courts aware of what is available and training court officials on trauma and how to properly and respectfully deal with human trafficking victims. If other counties and states can get on board to what people like Judge Herbert are doing, this country can make major strides towards ending human trafficking. Otherwise, the criminal justice system is going to continue to fail these women and push them right back into the cycle.


(1) Prostitution & Solicitation, Luftman, Heck & Associates LLP, Cincinnati Criminal Defense Attorneys, http://www.cincinnaticriminalattorney.com/sex-offense/prostitution-soliciting/ (2017).

(2) Specialized Courts, National Institute of Justice (Aug. 5, 2016), http://www.nij.gov/topics/courts/pages/specialized-courts.aspx.

(3) Dr. Karen Romanoff, CATCH Court – Human Trafficking and the State Courts Collaborative Research Findings (2015), http://www.htcourts.org/wp-content/uploads/CATCH-CourtFactSheet-1.pdf.

(4) George M. Wolfe, Franklin County Ohio Catch Court: Hope for Former Prostitutes (May 24, 2016, http://www.ohiolaw.net/ohio-legal-news/2016/05/24/franklin-county-catch-court-for-prostitutes/.

(5)Karen Miner-Romanoff, Preliminary Report of an Evaluation Study of a Problem-Solving Court for Prostitutes, Drug Offenders, and Victims of Human Trafficking, Franklin University, http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:DR98f7ak8p4J:cjinvolvedwomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/CATCH-COURT-Preliminary-Report-Final.docx+&cd=5&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=safari%20(2014).

(6) William J. Brunson, Peter Coolsen, et al., A Guide to Human Trafficking for State Courts (July 2014), http://www.htcourts.org/wp-content/uploads/Ch-2_140723_NACM_Guide_OnLineVersion_04.pdf.

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