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Treating prostitutes as victims, not criminals

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Chances are pretty good a 21-year-old prostitute was forced into the world's oldest profession at a young age.  Human trafficking experts say girls as young as 12 and 13 are forced into prostitution.

Harris County is leaning more towards teaching prostitutes are victims rather than criminals.

"It made no sense to engage in behavior that would criminalize girls who are primarily victims," Associate Judge Angela Ellis said.  "It doesn't mean you don't hold them accountable for the other things they may have done but at the core, you have to deal with the sexual abuse."

Ellis was instrumental in getting the 315th Juvenile Court to establish GIRL Court.  GIRL stands for Growing Independence Restoring Lives.  It's the first of its kind in the entire nation.  It's for girls who have been either charged with prostitution or for those at risk of being forced into the lifestyle.

The idea is to give the girls the skills, tools, resources and motivation to break out of the life and stay out.  Ellis said one of their biggest accomplishments is to get Juvenile Probation and CPS to talk and work together.  The court tries to get at the underlying causes first and deals with the almost inevitable substance abuse issues second.

At a legislative panel on human trafficking at Lone Star College, Ellis was one of the experts asking for treatment facilities for those who've gone through GIRL Court.  They want an option other than returning the girls to the streets or to the dysfunctional homes they ran away from in the first place.

The court is new.  It's about to graduate its first class of just three on Thursday.  Ellis knows they need to reach more girls, but this is a start.

"It's not going to go away.  It's always been there.  We're trying to deal with this in an intelligent way."

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