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Thursday 14th of November 2019

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What If Courts Treated Young Sex Trafficking Victims Like Cyntoia Brown as People, Not Perpetrators?

Friday 9th of August 2019 | North America, United States
Mother Jones
News

In Judge Catherine Pratt’s courtroom, rulings are squarely focused on rehabilitation.

One morning in February, Brittney, a baby-faced 17-year-old with short black braids, stands in front of a juvenile court judge in Compton, California, talking about kittens. Brittney had been in and out of the justice system since she was 14, after the state removed her from her physically abusive mother. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Brittney bounced from group homes to foster care to the streets. She got involved with sex work. She’d been convicted of burglary and attempted robbery; in one incident, Brittney tried to steal a cellphone from a woman sitting at a bus stop with her 3-year-old.

But today, Brittney is telling the judge about cats and her work with the veterinary program at the juvenile detention center in the Santa Clarita Valley, where she has spent the last six months. “It sounds like you found something that really interests you,” says Judge Catherine Pratt, who has seen Brittney (not her real name) in her courtroom on and off for several years. After detailing Brittney’s next steps—she’ll be released from the center and placed in a group home, where she’ll remain on probation—Pratt looks down at her from the bench. “I’m really proud of you, Brittney,” she says. “I hope you’re proud of yourself.” Brittney flashes a wide grin.

This is the STAR Court—Succeeding Through Achievement and Resilience—a groundbreaking program for sex trafficking victims under 18, and those at risk of being trafficked, who have gotten caught up in the legal system for crimes like robbery or assault. As in typical juvenile courts, Pratt doles out sentences to kids (most of whom are girls). But the similarities end there; her courtroom feels more like a counseling session than a judicial hearing, and her rulings are squarely focused on rehabilitation. Social workers bring cupcakes for girls’ birthdays.

Pratt often attends their high school graduations and gives Walmart or grocery store gift cards to girls who are trying to get back on their feet after having every aspect of their lives controlled by a pimp. “What can we do for you?” is a common question from Pratt. If girls fulfill the conditions Pratt sets—going to school, getting a job, staying out of trouble—their criminal records may be wiped clean.

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  • International Juvenile Justice Observatory (IJJO). Belgian Public Utility Foundation

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  • Head Office: Rue Mercelis, nº 50. 1050. Brussels. Belgium

    Phone: 00 32 262 988 90. Fax: 00 32 262 988 99. oijj@oijj.org

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