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Observing Compassion and Justice - 'Dope to Hope' CATCH Court

Author: Lou Peryea • Published: 12/31/1969

CATCH CourtCourtroom drama can be seen regularly on television, in the movies, and in real-life situations as judges, lawyers, plaintiffs and defendants all ‘make their case’ in a tense and somber courtroom environment. One side wins – and the other side doesn’t.

But on Thursday afternoons a breath of fresh air blows through the Franklin County Municipal Courthouse as Judge Paul Herbert conducts CATCH (Changing Actions To Change Habits) Court, a special docket which allows for a unique combination of compassion and justice for women trapped in the cycle of addiction and prostitution, which is often fueled by sexual abuse and violence.

This past December, a group of us from Delaware County, were privileged to observe Catch Court. We entered a room packed with program participants finishing their pot luck lunch, while sharing conversation and laughter with a very significant support team. This weekly gathering of all 20+ women in the program is a time of encouragement and fun, as well as serious business and real accountability. The atmosphere in the room let me know that I was witnessing something extraordinary.

No Shame ZoneAt 1:30 Judge Herbert entered the Courtroom – but there was no gavel banging - no ‘All Rise’. There was the Judge (a man) walking around and mingling with these women – women who have been used by men time and time again. And here was a man who walked around respecting and valuing them as a person; not as a service or property. When he finally took the Bench, he just grinned and got ‘this great day’ started. I watched in awe as kindness, firmness, mercy and joy mingled together in each moment of the next 2 hours. As one of our group noted, Courtroom 10 is a ‘no shame zone’.

Yes, he had reviewed the weekly reports from the full support team – but Judge Herbert KNEW everyone by name, was genuinely happy to see each one, and asked various questions about their ongoing recovery, for example, he had them report the number of days sober. But more importantly, he asked about their kids: “How is _________?” And he asked about their struggles and celebrations, “What did you do this week that you were proud of?” and “What can we, here at CATCH Court, do to help you?” His sincerity is simply captured on the program’s T-shirts, “Dope to Hope”.

One of the ladies experienced a ‘stumble’ and received a legal consequence; one lost her 100+ days of sobriety and started over at day 1; a staff report noted an incident causing Judge Herbert to ask, “Should I be worried about you?”; a teachable moment occurred regarding their current vulnerabilities to relapse. This was discipline, and this was about personal boundaries and goals. This was not about shame, and every woman retained her sense of dignity.

The participants in the program know they are walking a tough road and they cannot do it alone. They are cheerleaders for one another and encourage those who have stumbled with words like,
"I relapsed too... but you can make it. I know you can!"
"You’ve grown so much since you came."
"I’m so proud of you."

Two years spent in the structure of the CATCH Court program is no picnic, but it is a chance for a new beginning - a life lived off the streets, and free from incarceration. A chance to be a woman with her own name and story, rather than a body connected to someone’s fantasy, or a State of Ohio inmate number.

I left the Courtroom feeling hopeful for the women, thankful for the amazing support team, and deeply grateful for the compassion and heart of Judge Herbert. May this program be replicated across our State and our Country!

The summing up of the experience occurred as one Delaware County Coalition member observed, "The beautiful souls ministering to the women at CATCH Court were embodied evidence that Love can truly heal when judgment is replaced with mercy and compassion. We bore witness that day, to a counter-cultural system that is working, because CATCH Court serves as the Church without walls. It is a setting of love that will always make a difference in healing the wounds of the world."


Lou Peryea


Lou Peryea
Delaware County Against Human Trafficking Coalition Faith Committee Member

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