Houston's SAFE Court Offers Victims of Human Trafficking a New Path


Houston's SAFE Court Offers Victims of Human Trafficking a New Path

Houston's SAFE Court Offers Victims of Human Trafficking a New Path

In this New Thinking podcast, Ann Johnson, an assistant district attorney and the human trafficking section chief with the Harris County District Attorney's Office, discusses her office's strategies for combating human trafficking, including increased enforcement against traffickers and buyers, and diversion from prosecution for victims. One of the office's diversion programs, SAFE Court, gives those aged 17 to 25 who are charged with prostitution the opportunity to clear the charge from their criminal records by completing a year-long program of monitoring and social services. SAFE Court was created with support from a Smart Prosecution grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. To learn more, visit the Association of Prosecuting Attorney's Smart Prosecution website.

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ROB WOLF: Hi. I'm Rob Wolf, Director of Communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Welcome to another New Thinking podcast. Today I am speaking with Ann Johnson, who is an Assistant District Attorney with the Harris County District Attorney's Office in Texas. She is also the Human Trafficking Section Chief of that office. For those who may not realize, Harris County is where Houston is located, very large county. Thank you very much, Miss Johnson, for joining me today.

JOHNSON: Thank you. It's an honor to be here. It's an honor to speak with you on behalf of District Attorney Devon Anderson and the other folks that are working tirelessly to combat human trafficking in the Houston area.

WOLF: You're here today and tomorrow to observe what goes on here in New York at some courts that are also working to address human trafficking.

JOHNSON: Yes, we are very fortunate that our SAFE court team, which is a prostitution diversion court, our defense attorney, our probation officer, our judges and our research partner and myself have been able to come up and visit two of your companion courts to be able to work with our peers and exchange ideas and see about the innovations that are taking place here locally.

WOLF: Well, as I said when I introduced you, you are the Section Chief for the Human Trafficking Division in your office. You do have a robust program going on there as well. I wanted to talk to you about that. In particular, I thought we could focus on what you guys are calling the SAFE court, which I understand stands for Survivors Acquiring Freedom and Empowerment court. I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about how that court got started and what its goals are.

JOHNSON: The vision for this court actually started about four years ago when then District Attorney Mike Anderson hired me to come in as a human trafficking specialist. I had been with the DA's Office. I had left for health reasons and I was actually doing juvenile defense work and began representing children who were charged with prostitution. Through the course of that time in private practice, not only did we challenge a case of an individual charged with prostitution of which the Texas Supreme Court ruled in the case of IN RE: B.W., that children are the victims of child prostitution not the offenders.

Myself and District Attorney Devon Anderson were actually the two founding defense members of a court called GIRLS court, which is for Growing Independence and Restoring Lives, which assist children at risk of human trafficking, who are in our Juvenile Justice System between the ages of 10 and 17. With this background, I came back to the DA's Office in February of 2013 and the commitment at that time was just recognizing that Houston was well known as a hub of human trafficking and District Attorney Anderson had this vision to see how we could best combat the issue and reenergize our focus within the DA's Office.

At the time, we began looking at cases of individuals charged with prostitution because we knew from the Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force report that the State Department was estimating that we identify about 0.04% of victims in existence. We knew that we had hundreds of people being charged with the offense of prostitution. The commitment was to start with the new vision from the legislature, which was that now in Texas, if you are a victim of human trafficking, it's a defense to prosecution for prostitution.

Our office has taken this commitment that that's a defense that we value and want to assist the defense bar in identifying. We began this new procedure of reaching out to the defense bar, talking with individuals who were charged with prostitution and helping them identify and disclose a human trafficking defense. We're very proud of those efforts, but what we saw is we began to see a population of young offenders who did not technically have that defense. Yet they got into the gang when they were 13 or 14. They don't have high school diplomas. At this point, they're of an age where they're willing, but not reaching the level of force, threat, prod or coercion. We saw a very vulnerable population that legally we were able to prosecute, but inherently we wanted to do something more.

District Attorney Devon Anderson sought the smart prosecution grant, with the vision of being, of us targeting this population between 17 and 25, charged with prostitution with the companion being that we would be evaluated by Sam Houston State University and have a research component to see if we could come up with a way to divert these folks out of the life.

WOLF: Just to clarify, this smart prosecution grant comes through the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance.

JOHNSON: Correct. We were one of the original recipients of that grant. We were very honored to be part of that initial “Smart Suite” prosecution and glad that we could create and comply with the Department of Justice in trying to combat the issue of the vulnerability of human trafficking for people that are caught in the Criminal Justice System.

WOLF: Also, to clarify, you had said the statute had changed, so the other cohort of people you were talking about, if they do have a defense of human trafficking, their cases ... What happens then? They are dismissed?

JOHNSON: They are dismissed. The legislature in Texas and people always say, because the case of B.W. was a case of first impression and they say, "Really? All these reforms are coming out of Texas." I say, "Absolutely." These reforms have come from the Texas Supreme Court, the legislature has given us incredible tools and District Attorney Devon Anderson has been very committed to this process of leading this charge to not only identify victims, but to better prosecute pimps and exploiters, such as johns and the demand side. That's what we've been doing in the office for the last almost four years to combat this issue of human trafficking.

If they are technically a victim of human trafficking, we dismiss their case. They're no longer in the Criminal Justice System and we are dependent on those private public partnerships that can provide services. Where they legally can be prosecuted, we are still offering them the diversion of working through the court process or working through a pre-trial diversion contract with our office, so that ultimately their case is being dismissed.

WOLF: Is that what the SAFE court is?

JOHNSON: That's what SAFE court is and that's what we do with other populations. Our District Attorney Devon Anderson has expanded these efforts beyond this age requirement of 17 to 25. She says in her leadership is that arrest as recovery, not as conviction. She has a vision to make sure that we are assisting this population that maybe charged as defendants, who have an underlying vulnerability, who need our help to get out of the game. That's important because it not only helps the individual and stops that revolving door in criminal justice that is not only costly to the person, but it's costly to the community. By doing this, we are not only helping people, but we are helping community safety in general.

WOLF: How do you help them? What services are you offering them?

JOHNSON: When those are in our system, are with our contract or in SAFE court, the assistance is provided for mental health services or drug treatment services. We work with the Harris County Probation Department. They work with our private partnerships, which we are very fortunate to have a number of key partners, such as the Houston Area Women's Center and the Bridge and other organizations that many other communities might find already assisting domestic violence population.

Basically where you see other service providers who are helping those who are vulnerable in the community, that's a key partnership that your court can set up and establish with.

WOLF: Do you mandate that participation? Is that how the court works?

JOHNSON: Yes. By being in the court and I'll tell you when we started a lot of people looked at us and said, "You guys are nuts. Why in the world would somebody sign up for a program where they're going to have to do basically a year-long probation, when they could take time served and just take their conviction and go about their business?"

WOLF: It's voluntary. You offer them, you say, "You could get a conviction or you could do, follow this mandate and it'll consist of this in your case. If you do it, the charges will be dropped, but it's more work."

JOHNSON: Correct. We work with the defense bar and that's an important key component is the buy in from both the prosecutor and the defense attorney and we give them the option. "Sure, you have the path within the Criminal Justice System to have a conviction and go on about your business, but you have this new path, which it's going to be a harder walk, but the vision is once you make that walk within the year, your case is dismissed. You can seek an expunction and not only is it like this never happened, but you have the tools that are provided to help you with those basic necessities of shelter, of education, of drug treatment."

People didn't think we'd have people sign up, but in the first year, we had many more than we thought we'd have. In fact, we've had 43 so far in the court, when we promised that we would have 20 in the first year. We had such an outpouring of requests from defendants who wanted to become clients of SAFE court that our district attorney expanded the program to allow for this alternative pre-trial diversion.

Harris County is in a position that if somebody wants help from our office, District Attorney Devon Anderson has said, "We're going to find a way to give it to you." That it is a new vision that we are finding is allowing people the ability to get on with their lives.

We recently had a graduation. We have graduations where we reward people and say, "We're glad that you've made it out of this program." Our defense attorney, who works on the court was at a local restaurant getting lunch and all of a sudden heard her name. She turned back and sure enough it was one of the clients and one of the graduates. Of course, this individual is thriving and doing well and her children are doing well. She's been able to put building blocks in place to be incredibly successful. Those are the kinds of stories that keep us going and those are the kinds of stories that we hope we can expand to a new population, who in the old days were being convicted for an offense of which now we recognize there's a vulnerability that we need to help assist with.

WOLF: It sounds like you're basically not only part of this movement that's redefining what a charge of prostitution means from someone who is a defendant to someone who is more like a victim. You're also redefining the role of a prosecutor because you're trying to help people not get, people who in theory have met the definition of a crime and you could technically and you do charge them in some cases, but you're trying to help them not have a permanent conviction of their record. That's a very different attitude, some might say, for a prosecutor to take.

JOHNSON: It is a different attitude and we are proud of the fact that it is working. When we came back, and I was in a specialist position back in 2013, you had more than 2,000 individuals that were prosecuted or charged with the offense of prostitution. At the time, you had some 56, I'd call them pimps or people that are charged with promoting or compelling individuals into prostitution. The district attorney's vision has been that we do this three prong approach of identifying victims, getting them out of the system and prosecuting pimps, exploiters, who are receiving money and those who are the demand or the buyers.

We've had another very important shift, which is the legislature gave us a tool last session and redefined the offense of prostitution. People would ask us, "How many seller and how many buyers are you prosecuting?" Under the law, they were defined in the same way, so we didn't have the ability to track that.

WOLF: Everyone was charged with prostitution?

JOHNSON: Everyone was charged with prostitution.

WOLF: Whether you were selling or buying?

JOHNSON: Correct. We didn't have the distinction in Texas yet, so last session we've had great leadership from Houston with Representative Thompson and Senator Whitmire and Senator Huffman, who have led the charge on human trafficking efforts and have given us this tool to say, "Okay, let's redefine these individuals." What we saw last year, once the law changed, we had 90 people who were charged as buyers.

So far this year, law enforcement has really kicked in their efforts to try to go after that demand and we've been very fortunate to have great connections with the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff's Department, who have upped the investigation side on demand. This year, as of August 30th, we had 644 cases against johns or the demand. That's a critical shift and critical component, which helps us further balance out the interest between those that are being sold, those that are buying and those individuals who are engaged in the offense of pimping.

We also have a wide variety of tools where we can charge individuals and we most often charge, which people don't realize, Texas has gotten this right since the 70's and Texas had a statute of compelling prostitution of a minor on the books since 1973. It's a law that has been there to be utilized and we most often charge under that offense or that crime because it's got good case law and it's a good provision that protects individuals from being compelled into prostitution, whether you're a minor or an adult.

We also have other ranges of aggravated promotion or promotion of prostitution. So far this year, as of August 30th, we had 101 individuals that we had charged with promotion or pimping. We've seen a steady decline over the or a steady decline over the last four years of sellers and an increase every year of cases against pimps, promoters for various levels of offenses and now buyers, which we can track. It has also meant that we have increased the commitment of prosecution and so our office is not just a specialist, but now I'm the Human Trafficking Section Chief. We have wonderful district attorneys that work with us from our felony grade prosecutors of Ana Martinez and Chelsea Honeycutt to our misdemeanor prosecutors that we have working on the demand side and with our overflow populations. We now have five prosecutors, an investigator and a paralegal and many of us are on call 24/7 for law enforcement.

WOLF: You mentioned an important component of the smart prosecution grant is that there's a research component. That's the smart in the, you know, that's what makes it smart, I guess, is trying to find out what works and what doesn't. I wonder if there's anything that you can share with me about the research partner, Dr. Lisa Muftic and what she has found so far. I know her reports haven't been finalized yet, but I just wonder if there's anything you can share as far as what you've learned about how the program's going.

JOHNSON: The District Attorney's Office has attempted many reforms and there's a key component of recognizing that data is critical. We, as individuals, have all of these stories of people that we work with, like the circumstance of the individual in the restaurant, who's doing very well. We hear those things, but then we have to look and say, "Okay, but what are our numbers? What's the big picture?" We are very fortunate that Dr. Muftic is evaluating our data, looking at the information and also evaluating us and saying are we doing well and where do we need to evolve. The entire team has been open to doing that.

So far we have had people stay on track for our four phase graduation. Of course, we've had people that have not made it that we've had to evolve and work with and try to figure out how to best assist them. Since we've had this overflow population because we've had so much interest, we've been able to provide an alternate pre-trial diversion where they're not getting the same level of assistance. For example, they're not getting the monthly interaction with the judge. They're not getting that monthly interaction with our probation officer and our defense attorney, who are dedicated to SAFE court.

So far, what Dr. Muftic has found is that the population that's in SAFE court is recidivating at about a third. That overflow population who's not getting the intensive services, but at the same high risk level is recidivating at about half. She tells me that that's a statistically important distinction. We do know which recidivism rates are something important that people want to see, are you successful. That's a good indication of where we're going, but more importantly the individual contacts that we're having with the individuals is we see people that are coming back to the court. We also have people who are in the court, who develop a trust level with the team and then disclose levels of human trafficking.

When that happens, at that point, we dismiss and divert them out, but we're very proud of what we've been able to provide with regard to the trust and relationships between our team and the clients and being able to give them a path in the future to say, "Hey, I need help." We measure success on many levels.

WOLF: It sounds like the fact that it's been such a, I guess, a popular option that people have been choosing when given that opportunity has allowed you to enhance the quality of your research because the original, as you explained before, you can accommodate 27 people actually in the SAFE court, so that overflow is getting not quite as intensive services and you can see that there is in fact a different long term result in terms of recidivism. The recidivism is higher for people who aren't getting the same intensity as the SAFE court participants.

JOHNSON: Not just that, but the change in approach. For example, in the first year, when we started the grant, we worked with the defense bar and let them know we, as the DA's Office, wanted to reach out to their defendant and see if they were an option. In the first year alone, we had 887 people who were potentially eligible for the court and so by working with the defense bar and saying, "Hey, may I assist you with your client? May I help you talk to them?" It opened the door to the client reaching out to us who normally we know that this population's vulnerable, that they haven't had the best interaction with authorities, that they may have had prior experiences through Children's Protective Services or bad experiences where they've been taken out of their home or put in foster care or their parents have been incarcerated. That's usually kind of a turn off to the system.

By being able to have that connection with the defense attorney to open the door to the conversation, each year we've increased the identification of human trafficking victims. Last year, not last year, but this year to that date of August 30th, even though we had some 1,000 individuals charged with selling, we were able to reach out to them and so far had identified 264 victims. That's a significant increase over what the State Department suggests we're doing in the normal process, so we know that this modification in prosecutor procedure is allowing victims to not be prosecuted. We are equally as proud of that and the fact that we are able to dismiss a case and not convict an individual. Justice takes many forms and so we're proud that we've been able to identify that and lead that charge within Harris County.

WOLF: Do they just say, "I'm a human trafficking victim" or what's the threshold?

JOHNSON: Yeah. This is, I think, an interesting dilemma for many counties. One, because of what we've been able to do in Harris County, we are often asked to speak with other individuals and so I'll go to these meetings where it'll be state wide and people will say, "Oh, yeah. You guys in Houston, you have this issue, but we don't have this issue." I'll always say, "Well, do you have prostitution?" They'll say, "Yeah, well we have prostitution."

My response is, "If you have prostitution, you have human trafficking. It's just a function of the type of commercial enterprise, that you've got to have some level of exploitation for individuals." I'll have people that'll say, "My client's not a victim of human trafficking." I'll say, "Well, how do you know?" They'll say, "I asked, 'Are you a victim of human trafficking?' And they'll say, 'No.'" There are many reasons they may say, "No." They may say, "No" because they know that they can't disclose that information because their pimp has told them that they can't, but they may also say "No" because they see the same public awareness that we do, which is usually the idea of a human trafficking victim is an international child who's being held in bondage and they think, "well, that's not me. I'm 22 and I have a college degree. Surely, I'm not a human trafficking victim."

When we conduct our interviews, we are asking questions, not that straight forward of "Are you a human trafficking victim?" but we ask other questions that we know when they answer them and they disclose levels of force, threat, prod and coercion, that they don't realize that's what's happening. We then identify them as human trafficking victims. We also have the circumstance where the word can get out on the street and say, "Hey, just tell me you're a human trafficking victim and your case will get dismissed." We know that that happens as well. When we conduct our interviews, we're not just getting the information, but we were work to corroborate the information. We find independent sources that corroborate what the individual's telling us, as opposed to just having someone telling a version of events. We work very hard to identify, not only based on what the individual's telling us, but other secondary information that corroborates the validity behind that.

WOLF: Sounds like you're doing amazing work and cutting edge work. I've been speaking with Ann Johnson, who is an Assistant District Attorney in the Harris County District Attorney's Office. She is also the Section Chief of Human Trafficking there and that's where they have developed this amazing model called the SAFE court, Survivors Acquiring Freedom and Empowerment. If you want to find out more about the SAFE court, you can visit the Association for Prosecuting Attorneys website, which is working with them on the Smart prosecution grant as well as the Center for Court Innovation's website www.courtinnovation.org. I'm sure they can also visit your website, which is ...

JOHNSON: Actually we are still working on our websites, but for those counties that are wanting to do this or looking for it, the key partnership is the judge and we are very fortunate to have Judge Pam Derbyshire and Justice Bill Boyce, who have taken this on. Judges are the key and as Doctor Muftic would say in the surveys that we do with our clients, "Everybody loves the judge." That's an important component. Judges have the ability to make this happen. The DA's Office is a critical component as well, but there are many judges out there that could start this initiative and they're kind of the tip of the spear to be able to combat the issue and treat individuals in this way.

WOLF: There are some inspiring words there, judges. Thank you again for taking the time to talk with me.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

WOLF: I'm Rob Wolf, Director of Communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Thank you for listening.


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