By LA County Supervisor Don Knabe.
On the eighth floor of the Compton Courthouse, Los Angeles County Judge Catherine Pratt bangs her gavel and gets to work. Teenaged girls, some even as young as 10 years old, are brought before her, charged with prostitution, as their lives hang in the balance. In the past, these girls would have been dragged into the courtroom in handcuffs and treated like criminals. Now, as our understanding of the true nature of this crime has evolved, we are treating them as the victims of a manipulative and heinous act. Leading our efforts is Judge Pratt, the shining star of the County’s STAR (Succeeding Through Achievement and Resilience) Court, a uniquely dedicated courtroom that works exclusively with victims of child sex trafficking.
In big cities and little towns across the country, young girls are forced by pimps and traffickers to sell their bodies for sex—often multiple times a night. Kids are brutally manipulated, both emotionally and physically, into a hellish life of exploitation. Let me be clear, these girls are not prostitutes. No child grows up dreaming of living that kind of life. They are victims—there is simply no such thing as a child prostitute!
One of the many disturbing facts about the child sex trafficking industry is that many of these victims are already part of our system. Whether through children and family services or probation—the young “defendants” in STAR Court are vulnerable and fragile. They often come from troubled homes and, in trying to find approval and self-worth, instead find themselves victimized by the real criminals, men who want nothing more than to sell their bodies for money. For our girls, once they are in the life, it can feel like it’s impossible to escape from it.
But, in Judge Pratt’s courtroom, kids find a lifeline—a ray of hope. Without shackles or orange jumpsuits, girls are treated like victims instead of criminals at the STAR Court. Instead of sending them through a revolving door of jail, probation and back into the waiting car of their exploiters, Judge Pratt sentences her young defendants to receive wrap-around services that will help restart their lives. With a team of attorneys, social workers and community partners, the girls are shown a path to a better life and given the tools to stay on it. Judge Pratt does everything in her power to ensure they have a stable place to live, receive regular counseling and mentorship, and attend school as they work towards graduation. For the first time in their lives, our girls feel like they have a personal champion cheering them on every step of the way.
Working with victims of child sex trafficking is not easy. They are haunted each and every day by the traumas and horrors they’ve endured in their young lives. Sometimes, when working with these girls, for every positive step forward, there are two steps backward. But Judge Pratt does not shy away from the challenge—she embraces it. The hard work pays off when she attends a young victim’s graduation ceremony from a nursing program or when she ends a girl’s probation. Her relationship with the girls extends beyond her courtroom, often going to dinner with them and remaining a positive and influential role model in their lives.
This new approach to empowering young victims is at the forefront of reducing human trafficking in Los Angeles County. It is a program that works and is model for others to follow. Putting an end to this crime and protecting our most vulnerable truly takes a village. The STAR Court has strong relationships with local law enforcement agencies and community partners as we work collaboratively towards keeping our children out of the life. Judge Pratt travels to jurisdictions and municipalities across the country, speaking to judges, attorneys and probation officers about how the STAR Court concept works and how it can change lives. In Los Angeles County, Hollywood may have its share of stars. But so does Compton.