Chicago Tribune: New Cook County court aims to treat prostituted women more like victims

For the past year, CCH has assisted Cook County officials in planning this new misdemeanor diversion court.

By Lauren Zumbach

Cook County officials announced Friday that a new court will try to transform how prostitution charges are handled so that women caught up in sex trafficking are treated more like victims and get the help they need.

The effort comes after the state Legislature approved a new law in 2013 requiring that every prostitution case charged in Illinois be a misdemeanor, not a felony.

The Chicago Prostitution and Trafficking Intervention Court aims to give those arrested for prostitution the assistance they need to escape that life, while also reducing jail crowding and substance abuse and addiction among women in sex work, officials said.

The new court was initiated by State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office in conjunction with Chief Judge Timothy Evans and the public defender’s office.

At a news conference at her downtown offices, Alvarez said the program was modeled after a program in Manhattan.

“We know that many women involved in prostitution are victims of human traffickers or they face issues such as chronic homelessness, mental health issues or addiction and they engage in prostitution for basic necessities such as food and shelter,” Alvarez said in a statement. “We strongly believe that this unique and coordinated initiative will bring positive results for the participants and their families, public safety and the criminal justice system as a whole.”

“It is a step in the right direction because it shifts the conversation and recognizes that these people, mostly women, are victims, not criminals,” Public Defender Amy Campanelli said. “It will remove them from the cycle of drugs, abuse and exploitation, and treat them as human beings, not case numbers to be processed as offenders.”

The court program will be located at the Cook County Domestic Violence Courthouse at 555 W. Harrison St.

Most defendants will be able to have their charges dismissed if they successfully complete the program, which will vary based on the person’s criminal background and needs, officials said.

Defendants will be offered individual assessment and case management, HIV testing and referral to treatment and group and individual counseling, with services primarily provided by Christian Community Health Center’s “Footprints” program, officials said. Other agencies involved include Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the Salvation Army’s STOP-IT program, which works with victims of human trafficking, and Thresholds, a mental health services agency.
Those who refuse the program or fail to finish will have the option of pleading guilty and enrolling in an intensive treatment course as an alternative to incarceration, officials said.

Eithne McMenamin, associate director of policy for the homeless coalition, said the court will open on Monday and expects to see its first defendants after about a week.

Most sex workers are victims of abuse who have “a long history of trauma” and are in the sex trade as a way to survive, she said.