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Criminal Justice & Legal System

New court takes special approach to human trafficking

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The Human Trafficking Specialty Court in Washtenaw County is the first of its kind in Michigan.

For Elizabeth Campbell from the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, who helped develop this specialty court, the goal is “to change the way that the criminal legal system responds to human trafficking in a few different ways.”

The first change she hopes to make is the way in which the legal system looks at people who have been arrested for crimes like prostitution. She says we should be assessing whether they have been victims of severe trafficking.

“And then to respond to it in a different way by offering services that are related to the trauma that maybe brought them to commercial sex, and to ensure that police officers – the local criminal justice system – understand what human trafficking is and treat the people who have experienced it accordingly,” she said.

Washtenaw’s Human Trafficking Specialty Court is attempting to do just that – find help for victims and to keep them from re-offending. It officially opened in March of 2014.

Judge Charles Pope from Ypsilanti’s14B District Court oversees the Human Trafficking Court. He says the people this court sees almost always are dealing with substance abuse, mental health issues, alcohol relationship issues, housing problems, child and child care hardships, and/or trouble with employment.

“It’s a difficult population just because their plate is so full,” he said. “Traditionally courts – especially the last decade or so – have become pretty adept at dealing with substance abuse issues. But that only addresses one of the many issues that our participants encounter. And the idea is to provide as great a depth and wide variety of services as we can.”

Usually, the court assigns its clients two years of probation, the longest sentence allowed for a misdemeanor in Michigan. In no fewer than seven days, clients are assessed and then immediately they begin their recommended treatment.

Pope said he and his associates tried hard to figure out exactly what would help the court’s clients do well.

“What is it we can offer them that would really inspire them to comply and to be successful?” he said. “And I guess because we’re attorneys, we kind of thought it may have something to do with a promise of dismissal of charges in the future. Turned out that wasn’t it at all.”

What clients wanted was “direct access to services.” They wanted help, and more than that, a community of people who understood what they were going through, Campbell said.