First graduation ceremony for court program that changes prostit - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

First graduation ceremony for court program that changes prostitutes lives

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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) -

Two women are set to become the first graduates Wednesday of a new, specialized Hamilton County court program designed to help prostitutes beat substance addiction and start a new life to get off the streets for good.

The inaugural Hamilton County CHANGE Court graduation will be held at 1:30 p.m. in Municipal Court Judge Heather Russell's courtroom of the main county courthouse, 1000 Main St.

The women are celebrating their sobriety after a voluntary, two-year period of intensive probation with another five women expected to graduate in the spring, according to the judge.

They have jobs, cars, insurance, their driver's licenses, and they have re-connected with their families.

"They have reclaimed their voices, their self-esteem and their lives," Judge Russell told FOX19 NOW.

Most of the charges they were on probation for while they participated in CHANGE Court are being dismissed and sealed, a huge benefit as they begin a new way of life, according to the judge.

The idea for the program, she said, came from two Cincinnati police officers, Nate Young and Kate Werner. They went to her in February 2014 with a way to help heroin-addicted prostitutes.

"Their request was in response to the West McMillan Community council, who complained that prostitutes were ruining their neighborhood with their activity, and the crime, abandoned syringes, graffiti, litter and traffic that occur where prostitution occurs," the judge recalled.

The community  also concerned for the prostitutes, she said.

Due to overcrowding at the county jail, the residents realized that after the women were arrested, as low-level offenders they would be released and be right back on the streets the same day, with no detox or rehab offered.

The offenders would be given a date to return to court, but never appear - so nothing ever changed for them, according to the judge.

By April 2014, she had convened a meeting with treatment providers, court and jail administrators, and police to begin to create CHANGE Court, which addresses the treatment needs for heroin addicted prostitutes who also have mental health and trauma issues.

Judge Russell accepted the first CHANGE court participants in July 2014.

CHANGE stands for Changing Habits And setting New Goals is Empowering.

The goal, the judge explained, is to detox the women and, since they are homeless, find them housing in residential treatment programs. 

They meet weekly with the judge and a treatment team consisting of their counselor at their residential treatment program, the probation officer and a program coordinator. They go through program phases with rewards and sanctions. 

Research indicates that a brain on heroin needs two years to re-wire, and recover before a lifetime of sobriety can be considered, so the program offers a two-year probation period.

After that time, the hope is the women are sober and able to work and find housing. They also work on education, job coaching and re-connecting to family. 

There is an eligibility criteria for participants. They must:

Have current misdemeanor charges of prostitution or solicitation, along with related offenses, or new misdemeanor arrest with a history of prostitution or solicitation

  • Be an Ohio resident at the time of residential treatment
  • Be competent
  • Have the cognitive ability to understand and voluntarily participate in Change Court.
  • Be appropriate for intensive supervision probation and case management services and treatment
  • Be eligible for expungement after successful completion of the program (final decision rests with the prosecutor)

Change court has no budget and no funding, the judge noted.

She said she has created processes to link to existing services and programs, each which are funded in a variety of ways. And she volunteers her time to oversee it all, in addition to her duties as municipal court judge.

Once the five women graduated in the spring, future expansion of CHANGE Court includes closer collaboration with 2d chance entities, for finding housing and jobs for those who have demonstrated sobriety, she said.

The program has been offered to about 50 people, half of which declined. The other 25 accepted the program, she said.

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