Montgomery County starting women’s drug court docket

In the past eight years, Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Gregory Singer has presided over hundreds of cases involving women who were victims of domestic violence and human and sex trafficking. Often times, many of those victims, who also abused drugs, return to his court as defendants, he said.

“Prostitutes, or as I call them, prostituted women, are more victims than perpetrators inasmuch as they are in sex trafficking, they are the product, a human product,” Singer said. “Women in our criminal justice system are pretty well under served.”

Expanding on an idea from a colleague in Franklin County Municipal Court, Singer proposed that Montgomery County Common Pleas Court implement a gender-specific drug court aimed at addressing some of the issues women face. His colleagues liked the idea and recently voted unanimously to start a women’s court later this year. The court will not get additional funding to run the program, officials said.

A decade ago, the majority of drug court cases involved men. But a recent survey revealed that there’s now a balance — 70 men and 70 women on average — as more females are being referred to drug court, said Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Administrative Judge Michael Tucker, in explaining why Singer’s proposal received broad support.

The program will require that law enforcement, court personnel and local treatment groups work together to comprehensively address a host of issues facing women. Those issues include drug addiction, human trafficking, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, mental health, pre-natal care, parenting classes, education, housing, nutrition and special needs.

“This is the most challenging population that you’re going to deal with,” said Judge Paul Herbert, who runs the Changing Actions to Change Habits, or CATCH Court, in Columbus that was an inspiration for the Montgomery County’s special docket. “Women that come into this program have a tremendous amount of trauma; 72 percent were sexually abused when they were young children.”

Singer praised the success of Herbert’s docket, and said people with histories of trauma tend to get better results when they enroll in gender-specific substance abuse treatment groups.

“We have seen a dynamic in CATCH court that is far different than we see in a mixed gender court in that it’s a group dynamic,” Singer said. “They can lie to Judge Herbert all day long, but these other women, they see right through it. We can only hope to duplicate what (Franklin County) has done up there.”

Speciality courts growing

A handful of similar programs have been started around the country in the past five years, but experts say a women’s court could take off just like other speciality courts that pool together resources and organizations working on the same issue.

“These specialized dockets are expanding across the country,” said Jonathan Mattiello, executive director of the State Justice Institute, which awards federal grants to innovative programs. “There are drug courts and veterans’ courts. You’re seeing the beginnings of what will be long-term court model to serve victims of human trafficking.”

Allegheny County Judge Kevin G. Sasinoski, who has run a similar docket to Herbert’s for a decade in Pittsburgh, said prostitution often is symptomatic of bigger criminal elements. “The seamier end of that type of business is the trafficking aspect,” Sasinoski said. “In the scheme of things, yeah, they are misdemeanors, it is only a minor offense, but it has a lot of bad things going along with it.”

His program, Positive Recovery Intensive Diversion Experience, or PRIDE, has been successful, Sasinoski said. Of the first 79 graduates, only five had been re-arrested for prostitution charges in Allegheny County.

In Montgomery County, Singer has worked on human trafficking issues for years and said the inter-connectivity of drugs addiction, sex trafficking and mental health issues have caught the attention of the Supreme Court of Ohio. In addition to its drug court, the county started a veterans’ treatment court last year. And like those dockets, court officials say the women’s drug court docket would require no additional funding.

“The (Ohio) Supreme Court is supportive of all specialized dockets and therapeutic treatment courts,” said Stephanie Hess, director of Court Services and acting manager of specialized dockets. “We are working closely on developing a human trafficking bench book for courts that are interested in starting a human trafficking court. That is something that is relatively cutting edge, I think.”

Next steps

The next step in establishing the women’s docket in Montgomery County is getting local agencies and support groups to get involved. Organizations that are being approached include Oasis House, the YWCA Battered Women’s Shelter, Artemis Center, Montgomery County Job Center, Womanline, Nova House and others, said Jim Dare of the Montgomery County Common Pleas Court.

“It’s the best thing that could happen in Montgomery County right now for the women that we serve,” said Cheryl Oliver, executive director at the 9-year-old Oasis House, which sees about 350 women per week involved in the adult sex industry.

“(Judge Singer) understands their past and their backgrounds, so I think that that’s a huge benefit because then they can get referred to additional services outside of the general legal system… . When women see that there’s potential help for them, not only within the legal system but now branching out potentially, that’s a win-win for everyone.”

Butler County Common Pleas Court has specialty dockets addressing drugs use, mental health and child non-support issues. “You have to have good investment throughout the community and a need for that particular program,” said that court’s administrator, Rob Menke. “Good innovation and getting new ideas going are always a good thing.”

Neither Clark nor Warren counties have any specialty dockets, but Warren County Common Pleas Court Administrator Jennifer Burnside said a gender specific court was worth watching: “Anytime that you can have a specialized docket to specialize on core areas that we don’t have services for, it’s great.”

Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Presiding Judge Barbara Gorman agreed. “I think it’s an idea whose time has come. We’re getting a lot more female (drug) defendants,” she said, echoing Tucker’s comments that a decade ago the vast majority of drug court participants were men. “The drugs, the prostitution often go together. In dealing with the court separately, I think we can address the issues in a gender-specific way.”

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