Graduates walked into the atrium of the Ohio Statehouse, greeted by cheers from their friends and loved ones. One by one, they step up to the microphone.
“I spent 37 years of my life a homeless drug addict, a victim of human trafficking on the streets of Columbus,” says Barb Davis. “I truly knew it was my destiny to die out there.”
This is not an ordinary graduation: Davis is one of nine women graduating from CATCH Court, or "Changing Actions to Change Habits."
It’s a two-year program within the Franklin County Municipal Court for survivors of human trafficking, and one of two recovery courts in the county. The women walking across the stage were coerced into sex work, and in exchange, their traffickers promised them housing, drugs and a sense of stability.
“Through God’s amazing grace and mercy, as well as the grace and mercy that CATCH court has shown me, my life is completely different than it was two years ago,” Davis says to more cheers.
Judge Paul Herbert came up with the idea for CATCH Court a decade ago. He was working on domestic violence cases and noticed a pattern: Battered women were coming to court to testify against men in jailhouse uniforms. Then one woman broke that pattern.
“The sheriff brings the next defendant out on the wall, chained up, and it’s a woman and she’s all beat up, she’s looking exactly like one of these victims of domestic violence except she’s in handcuffs and a jail suit,” Herbert says. “I look down at the file and it says 'prostitute.'”
Herbert realized the law didn’t see these women as victims. He pitched the idea of a courtroom dedicated to helping these women recover, instead of punishing them.
“There wasn’t a law against human trafficking in 2009 when we started this,” he says, the corner of his eyes crinkling with a smile. “We didn’t have a law against human trafficking in Ohio until 2012. So it was pretty much, we were kind of a laughing stock.”
At the start, CATCH was one of only three such programs in the entire country. Now there are seven similar court dockets in Ohio alone, and Herbert has helped cities like Nashville get their own programs up and running.
Herbert says people are more aware of human trafficking than they were a decade ago, and they understand the cost it has on the community.
“If you want to do nothing, you’re going to keep spending $5.4 million a year to arrest and jail these women and have no improvement in the circumstance,” he says.
It costs about $200,000 a year to run CATCH Court. The program takes care of housing and food—things the women would normally rely on their trafficker for. Most women also get treatment for trauma and addiction, and are eligible to have their records expunged.
In exchange, they’re required to adhere to the terms of their parole, are subject to drug testing, and come in to court every week for two years.
“I became addicted to drugs and then the trafficker found me,” says Vanessa Perkins, one of the first graduates of CATCH Court.
Perkins was sexually abused as a young girl, and started drinking and doing drugs when she was only 12.
“He preyed on my vulnerabilities on purpose, knew what he was doing," she says. "From drug addiction to love, to family, to loyalty. He preyed on all of that stuff I was missing."
After completing the program, Perkins was able to regain custody of her son. She stayed sober and worked multiple jobs before Herbert asked her to be the bailiff of the very court that helped her recover.
Now Perkins helps other women who are going through what she did years ago.
“There are some that have a real reaction,” she says. “They’re like, 'If you can do it, I can do it.' Especially if I happened to be out there with them. Cause there’s people that come in that we were on the street together.”
CATCH is working to enroll more survivors, and to increase their graduation rates. Of the more than 350 women enrolled, fewer than 25% make it to graduation. Some women drop out because they have jobs and don’t need the help. Others end up back on the street.
But the court has found success keeping women out of the system, regardless of if they graduate. Of the women who enroll in CATCH for any amount of time, only 45% re-offend, compared to 80% of all women arrested for prostitution nationwide.
And that number falls even lower—just 20%—for the women who cross that graduation stage.