Nashville becomes just the fifth city in the country to create a specific court process for victims of human trafficking. It puts less emphasis on criminal punishment and more on treatment.
Police and prosecutors will work harder to identify trafficking and offer victims up to a year of counseling, housing, or drug treatment. If they complete the program, known as “Cherished H.E.A.R.T.S.,” their charges will be dismissed. This is similar to a drug abuse court.
Many participants will likely be found through prostitution arrests. Those cases often reveal that victims were coerced, or trafficked. That’s the difference. Anyone forced into sex will be treated as a victim — if they agree to get help, says prosecutor Tammy Meade.
“It sounds funny that sometimes somebody needs to be arrested to determine that they’re a victim,” Meade said.
“Not everybody’s going to want to do this,” she said. “One day, they’re going to say, ‘You know what, I can’t do this anymore and I’m ready for that help.’ And when that happens, we’re going to be here for them.”
Meade, who leads the county’s trafficking prosecution unit, said victims survive horrible circumstances and abuses.
“Our goal with this court is to give these people hope. To tell them, ‘Yes, you matter. You may have been charged with a crime, but you’re not a criminal. You just need a hand up.’ ”
Drug Courts Set Model
Like in drug court, specially trained lawyers handle the cases. It’s also the same judge, Casey Moreland, who will review cases weekly … although he and the mayor don’t yet have long-term funding.
“We’re going to go until the money runs out and … then worry about that when that comes,” he said.
For now, drug court money will cover the trafficking program, which doesn’t get its own budget. Two participants have been identified and will begin the process next month.
“We cannot tolerate this in a civilized society, nor can we afford to let the victims of trafficking slip through the cracks of our justice system,” Moreland said. “This new initiative will stop the cycle of shuffling prostitutes through our courtroom without addressing the underlying reason of why they’re there in the first place.”
Nonprofit treatment providers will play a key role, especially with the limited budget.
“This marks a real change for Nashville in moving from treating victims as criminals to treating victims as victims,” said Ondrea Johnson, director of development for End Slavery Tennessee.
Officials say the existing Grace Empowered program for prostitutes will continue and be incorporated into the new program.
The initiative also arrives in the wake of Tennessee passing 36 new laws in four years to combat trafficking. They’ve toughened penalties, expanded police investigation powers to allow electronic wiretapping, and given new protections to victims.