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GIFT: Problem-solving court uses an empowerment model that’s proving to be effective

This approach is meant to eliminate the revolving door that repeat offenders face: probation, workhouse and back out on the streets.

The GIFT calendar convenes every second and fourth Tuesday of the month at the Hennepin County Courthouse.
MinnPost photo by Rita Kovtun

The woman was smiling and cooing at her bubbly toddler – “Is that your nose?” – as I passed by the polka-dotted stroller at the end of their row, taking a seat behind her. In her lap was a beautiful little girl with cocoa-colored skin and a bright pink ribbon bow pinned to her tight, dark curls. When she began to get rowdy, her mother gently chided her, “No, don’t hit, we don’t hit. Hitting is bad. You hit again, no treat. No treat.”

The atmosphere in the room was relaxed, laid back – chatty, even. Scattered throughout the sparse seats were nine women, some also interacting with children, some watching the action at the front of the room. It wasn’t the kind of scene you’d expect to find in a courtroom in the Hennepin County Courthouse in downtown Minneapolis.

Yet here was Chief Judge Peter Cahill stepping up to the stand, musing aloud that he’d already forgotten the order he had given the women to come up, choosing one at random. Public defender Clifford Poehler, who was dressed in a gray sweater, stepped up to accompany the first woman, apologizing for his casual attire. His excuse was a lumpily bandaged hand, to which Cahill quipped, “You’re missing a tie, but I see one peeking out.” It was the fourth Tuesday of the month, and the GIFT (Gaining Independence for Females in Transition) calendar was in session.

GIFT: one of several problem-solving courts

The first so-called problem-solving court – a drug court offering treatment as an alternative to incarceration – opened in Miami in 1989. Today there are more than 2,000 courts with this label, though they are largely unknown to the public. The courts often draw from 10 key components established by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs [PDF], including integration of substance-abuse treatment and rehabilitation, frequent testing for alcohol and illicit drugs, and ongoing judicial interaction with each participant, but they all center around a key element: to develop strategies among the judge, prosecution, defense and treatment coordinators that will get offenders the help they need and prevent them from reoffending.

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This approach is meant to eliminate the revolving door of probation, workhouse and back out on the streets that repeat offenders face. Research shows the approach has proven more effective than traditional court strategies at reducing repeat offenses and improving public safety, saving taxpayer dollars and perhaps most important, giving more defendants the resources to turn their lives around and begin to realize their full potential.

Chief Judge Peter Cahill
Chief Judge Peter Cahill

One of Hennepin County’s problem-solving courts is the St. Stephen’s calendar for petty street crimes – crimes often committed by chemically dependent and homeless individuals – which operates on the principle that if an individual has a place to stay, “they won’t stand around on a street corner and drink in public [and] they won’t pee in public,” as Poehler says. “The crime rate drops precipitously.”

The principle is one that can also be applied to the GIFT calendar, another of Hennepin County’s roster of problem-solving courts, in addition to drug, DWI, veterans, and misdemeanor and felony mental-health court. GIFT grew out of a 2007 community-based research venture, with the findings compiled in a report titled the Prostitution Project, which looked at people who trade sex in North Minneapolis and found them to be victims of extreme poverty, high rates of violence, homelessness, chemical dependency, exploitation and societal stigma.

Following the research, Lauren Martin, director of research at the University of Minnesota‘s Urban Research Outreach/Engagement Center (UROC) and external research consultant for the GIFT project who authored the report, collaborated with Terri Hoy, a neighborhood probation supervisor with Hennepin County, and PJ Bensen and Julie Rud, two probation officers under Hoy’s supervision, who wanted to do more for women on probation from prostitution.

“Our goal was to reduce barriers and to connect them to services – to work with them in a way that was much more relational,” Bensen said. Martin adds: “We got together with … others who deal with the issue and really put together a project model that was sort of tailor-made to address the specific needs of women arrested for prostitution.”

The team chose an acronym that didn’t include the word “prostitution” in order to deter the stereotypes it carries and instead looked for something that emphasized their goal for the women they wanted to help: independence. GIFT – the resulting partnership-based corrections approach – was piloted in 2008 and officially launched in 2009.

In the courtroom

Since GIFT is a post disposition court, as per the norm with problem-solving courts, the women in the program usually get a stay of adjudication; they may plead guilty, but they’re not convicted.

“The whole idea of what GIFT stands for – it’s hard to get independent when you can’t work because you’ve got this conviction dogging you,” Cahill said.

Those charged with prostitution generally have the option between a jury trial or plea bargain, which might result in serving a sentence and going right back to their former lifestyle with a high risk of reoffending. Or, women can participate in the GIFT program, coming to the courthouse a maximum of twice a month on the second and fourth Tuesday to do case reviews, attending support groups and keeping close contact with their probation officer in the hopes they will rejoin the world as functioning members of society.

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Lauren Martin
Lauren Martin

“The carrot is: You don’t do any up-front jail time. The stick is: You end up working pretty hard. You can tell, with these women, we’re monitoring them closely,” Cahill said. He emphasizes that while the GIFT program can yield positive results, it involves intensive supervision and takes a lot of work; a woman who may not be ready for GIFT can choose to execute her sentence instead.

Bensen echoes the accountability piece: “We require a lot of the women, we hold their feet to the fire, and if they aren’t willing to come to the table and do what ends up being really hard work, court sanctions are applied.” 

Cahill has only been the GIFT judge for about a year – the only calendar he presides over in his position – and said it’s something he enjoys doing. When he saw cases in the traditional court model, “it could be almost discouraging that the people you see are on probation violations. You don’t see the success stories, because usually they’re doing well. The nice thing about a problem-solving court is you get to see both. You get to see the people who are struggling, (but) you also get to see the people who are doing well and congratulate them.”

Although GIFT is a problem-solving court, it doesn’t follow all 10 components; participants aren’t always formally dismissed from reviews. The probation period for the cases is around two years, but the women are typically dismissed from reviews after a year to active probation and eventually put on administrative probation. Pre-calendar staff meetings allow the judge, prosecutor, public defender and probation officers to go through each case and talk about when the next review should be.

“If they’re doing well, I kind of give them a little more space and they don’t have to come to reviews. If they’re starting to slip, I might tighten up on them and make them come in two weeks. … It’s all about how they’re doing,” Cahill said.

In fact, in the courtroom that day, one of the women’s probation was due to expire in January. Dec. 10, the second Tuesday of the month, was set to be her last review – the same day as Cahill’s birthday. “It’s going to be about you, because it’s your last review,” he told her. “We will make it your day.”

Another rule of the GIFT calendar is that men aren’t allowed in the room. The reason is simple: It’s hard for the criminal-justice professionals, treatment providers, as well as the women, to differentiate the husbands and boyfriends from the pimps.

“One of the challenges here is separating women from their pimps,” in helping them gain independence, Cahill said, because the pimps are good at what they do – grooming and seducing vulnerable women.

Words of encouragement are an unwritten rule, but one Cahill subscribes to wholeheartedly.

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“These are women whose self-esteem is really low, and they’ve been told enough through life, ‘You’re a failure, you’re no good.’ Even when I’m imposing a sanction, I like to be respectful about it. I think some of the encouragement you can give them is just like, ‘Wow, nobody’s ever said that to me,’ ” Cahill said.

Bensen, now a corrections unit supervisor with the Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCCR), said the success of GIFT hinges on the whole team working together and staying focused on the mission. “It’s really important that it’s a collaboration, because if we didn’t have any one piece, it wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does.”

Holistic approach

The team approach GIFT employs exists with the help of figures like Cheryl Tigue and Linda Orr, the GIFT women’s probation officers, and Artika Roller, the director of The Family Partnership’s PRIDE (From PRostitution to Independence, Dignity & Equality) program. Having these professionals in the courtroom, who have more regular contact with the women, allows for a more holistic picture of each woman’s situation when it comes time for her review.

Tigue takes South Side women and Orr takes North, covering the roughly 45 women currently in the program – a lull for GIFT, but one that isn’t immediately interpreted as good news because of the many factors that go into whether a woman ends up in GIFT. Tigue and Orr begin by meeting with each new client once a week and take an individualized approach to each woman’s case plan, addressing chemical dependency, mental health, physical health, financial stability, parenting and family issues and anything else.

“Depending on how they progress, we can kind of guide them through independence, making sure that they’re stable. We really hold their hand and give them close attention because a typical woman [in GIFT] hasn’t had very good parenting in a couple of very traumatic and broken families,” Tigue said.

Because the GIFT-centered approach involves helping women turn their lives around, many are referred to the PRIDE program – or a similar program called Breaking Free, based in Ramsey County. PRIDE requires the women to attend 18 support-group sessions, an initiative that is based on best practices around domestic violence victims, and supports them through providing resources and referrals for therapy, employment, housing and child protection.

“Our main role in court is to advocate for the women and support them through that court system … making sure they understand what’s happening,” Roller said.

Roller estimates 80 percent of GIFT women come through PRIDE; for others, some who have mental-health issues that limit their ability to do group work, treatment or one-on-one counseling is a better option. In either case, she believes a specialty court like GIFT helps support the women in their recovery.

GIFT courtroomMinnPost photo by Rita KovtunToday there are more than 2,000 GIFT courts, though they are largely unknown to the public.

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“We’re not in public court where you’re talking about very personal issues. … The women we work with have such high risk factors that we see success as they’re able to be in a place where they can be honest about what’s going on and not judged by the things that are going on in their lives, and encouraged by [their] successes,” Roller said.

Tigue’s previous role as a probation officer in the women’s section of the Hennepin Adult Corrections Facility in Plymouth prepared her for her current work and made her transition to GIFT a natural one.

“I love [GIFT] – that’s why I was willing to leave the ACF. I think GIFT is very much needed with this clientele,” Tigue said. “I get phone calls from them all the time. I get messages over the weekend just saying, ‘Hi, I just need to talk to someone.’ The women have an opportunity to bond with someone that they respect. … They need that close, specialized service.”

Tigue said female offenders especially need a program like GIFT.

“Women are relational. They operate from an area of connection. When a person will take the time to connect with them, and meet them where they are, it is such a valuable catalyst for change. You look at women, and in our business of corrections, we really focus on what they’ve done wrong and hold them accountable. With this model, we want to focus on that they can do right and where they can go from here. It’s almost like a correctional healing journey,” Tigue said.

As invaluable GIFT can be, it remains a probation approach with jail as a last resort – something Cahill refers to the “30 day sit-down.” He recalled a recent calendar where he sent three of the women to jail.

“It had gotten to that point where I said, ‘You gotta go in.’ One even said … she was hearing voices – her medication wasn’t working,” Cahill said. “Nobody loves jail, but sometimes it’s a good thing … for some of the women. It’s a safe place and it’s 30 days to slow down, where you don’t have to worry about all these different relationships and different things you’ve got to do.”

Poehler said while he understands Cahill’s side, he respectfully disagrees 99 percent of the time.

“I would say, yeah, if somebody was in such a situation that they were about to kill themselves, either purposely or inadvertently because they’re mixing drugs and doing all kind of crazy stuff or they’re putting themselves in harm’s way … [but] I just don’t think [these] people ought to be sent to jail based on the type of environment they’re coming from,” Poehler said.

Cahill said even when he revokes up to 90 days of probation, it’s usually not so bad.

“I’ll say, ‘furlough to inpatient treatment’ or ‘furlough to mental-health treatment,’ so that means as soon as they do an assessment and set up a bed somewhere, they’ll get out much sooner than the 90 days,” Cahill.

Bensen adds that in GIFT, jail isn’t a punishment, but a tool to interrupt the cycle of sole survival for a woman on the street.

“We can’t get her to engage with us because she is so busy surviving, that’s all she has time to do. Sometimes we just have to be able to slow her down enough so that we can talk to her. … It’s about getting her to engage and helping her get to a place where she is able to even consider a healthier lifestyle,” Bensen said.

Hopeful outlook

Martin has been collecting data since GIFT’s launch in 2009, and since probation takes one to two years to complete, there are only now enough women who’ve gone through the program to determine whether it’s working.

“The answer is yes, it is working. For women who engage in the program, their risk for recidivism is greatly decreased, and this is measured by a tool that the county uses to assess recidivism risk,” Martin said.

According to Bensen, the empowerment model the program uses has been a key to its success.

“There is no way for us to know when a woman is first placed in GIFT whether she is one who is going to be successful or not. … There is not a way to predict who will make it. So if you treat them all as though they will, that’s where the magic starts. Those who have been successful say, ‘You believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself.’ And when your probation officer believes in you, that’s powerful,” Bensen said.

Martin is currently in the process of writing up the final report of research collected since the inception of the program, which will be available to the public in early 2014.

Martin and Bensen presented GIFT at the International Human Trafficking, Prostitution, & Sex Work Conference early on in the program, but until they can analyze the new research more in-depth, the next step will remain unclear.

“DOCCR has embraced the idea of evidence-based practices, so … everything hinges on the outcomes of the project. This is why we are so excited to be at this stage. Once the data has been analyzed, I would guess expansion into the rest of the county would be a possibility,” Bensen said.

Tigue is hoping the scope of the program will widen. “Maybe it’ll go county-wide because prostitution has definitely spread at a large level to the suburbs. There’s a lot of need out there,” Tigue said.

According to Poehler, officials in Ramsey County are interested in the program because Hennepin’s program is working.

“We’re graduating people and getting them into a position where they have a house, and they’re chemically free, and they haven’t had any criminal charges since they’ve been there and they’ve actually got a shot at a normal life,” Poehler said.

He believes the best approach for other counties and states is adoption of the approach and adaption to their own circumstances.

“We have shown in Hennepin County that these specialty calendars work, and they work big time. These are major savers of resources and time of the criminal justice system, and they also are saving people’s lives,” Poehler said.

With New York’s recent announcement of its statewide system of specialized courts for prostitution cases and a case currently on appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, Bedford v. Canada, that is challenging the country’s prostitution laws, Minnesota is among good company; big-scale legal change around prostitution and trafficking is brewing.

A story continues

The woman I sat behind had finished her overall positive review and was helping her daughter put on a pink poodle backpack when I asked her if I could ask a couple of questions. She obliged. I followed behind as she wheeled the stroller out the door and into the hallway.

She told me she was one of the women who had been in the program the longest. She’d been arrested in August 2008 for prostitution, been put on probation, and then been on the run for 21 months. She’d been arrested again, done time, but she’d come around to appreciate GIFT. It was a good program, she said. The women were allowed to keep their children with them. She knew everybody in the room because she saw them so often. Her life was back on track.

She gave me one last smile and walked off, carrying her little girl and her dignity with her. She’ll be back in the courtroom on another Tuesday, along with the other women – one step closer to the woman she wants and deserves to be.