BEXLEY, Ohio (AP) — Judge Paul Herbert once dismissed prostitution as "the world's oldest profession," a crime the accused women brought on themselves. Then he began to notice the similarities between domestic violence victims appearing in his courtroom one moment and prostitutes the next.
"Once we started to learn more about the truth behind prostitution, we found out that it's really, 95 percent of the time, human trafficking," Herbert said.
On Friday, Herbert's five-year-old human trafficking court in Franklin County, the first such certified court in Ohio, honored five new graduates — women who spent years or even decades on the street before entering the program and beginning the slow process of turning their lives around.
"They gave me my life back," said Sandra McLurg, one of five graduates recognized at a ceremony at the governor's residence in suburban Columbus hosted by Ohio first lady Karen Kasich.
The court is an intensive two-year commitment that starts with women arrested for prostitution pleading guilty before Herbert.
They're required to enter counseling programs to address a wide range of problems, from poor mental health to substance abuse to lack of education. They must stay sober, keep off the streets and obey curfews.
The women meet weekly in Herbert's courtroom south of downtown where they visit over a potluck meal that resembles a family reunion more than a court session. Then they update Herbert and his staff on their progress.
During the week they might be in treatment, taking classes, looking for work and meeting with probation officers. If they make it the whole two years, the case against them is dismissed, said Shanequah Gaiter, specialized docket coordinator for the court.
Around 20 women participate at any one time, with 16 graduates so far after Friday. Not everyone lasts, while some lapse and start over.
McLurg, 53, said she spent the better part of two decades on the streets, addicted to crack cocaine. One of the keys to success was learning not just to forgive others, but herself, she said.
"I used to look at normal people going to work every day and think, how do they do it?" McLurg said. Today, working as a seamstress, she boasts that she's working and paying taxes.
Erica Cortez said she entered prostitution at age 18 and was on the streets, addicted to crack cocaine, from then until entering the court two years ago. The hardest thing was recognizing she had to give up everything.
"I had to completely surrender to what they were trying to show me," Cortez said. "I just didn't want to follow their rules and I didn't want to do what they wanted me to do."
Now 33, she's volunteering for a local hospital's medical outreach program and hopes to go back to school.
Human trafficking courts are planned in Cincinnati, Dayton and Cleveland, while courts in Baltimore, New York City and Pittsburgh have similar programs aimed at keeping prostitutes off the streets and out of jail permanently.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.