Cumberland County unveils program to keep human trafficking victims out of jail

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CUMBERLAND COUNTY, N.C. (WNCN) – It’s the first of its kind in the state: a human trafficking court designed to keep victims out of jail.

The first few cases went through the Cumberland County Courthouse within the last few days. 

Prostitution rings hidden behind the walls of a Fayetteville massage parlor, children being forced to work out of local fish markets, they’re the kind of cases Judge Toni King wants in her courtroom. 

“The ultimate goal is to get people out of that life,” said King.

Last year when those cases went through the courts, there was no human trafficking court, but there could still be victims. And that’s who Judge King is trying to reach. 

“It doesn’t stop traffickers from setting up shop, you shut down one massage parlor, and they pop up two, three or four later, I think it does assist because we’re able to get some of the victims,” said King.

Within the last week, she says she’s heard 11 unrelated cases, that’s 11 suspected human trafficking victims who came through her courtroom. 

“We had some prostitution, some solicitation, we had drug charges, we had two individuals who were actually charged with promoting prostitution. Being victims in the sense that they were forced to recruit,” said King.

She says if they go through the program, they could get counseling instead of jail time, and eventually, get those charges dismissed. But there’s a problem.

“My fear is that the propensity of sex and labor trafficking is much deeper currently than we anticipate,” said Chief District Court Judge Robert Steihl.

That’s where W.O.R.T.H. comes in.

Judges, area organizations, and law enforcement are teaming up to expand the program to help child trafficking victims, in the human trafficking court Judge King now calls W.O.R.T.H. 

“It’s ‘we overcome recidivism through healing,'” said King. “What better way than to say worth because most of the individuals that are coming in probably feel worthless so we wanna make sure they are drawing positive vibes,” she said.

Judge King says they have some cases identified of children being trafficked that they could help. She’ll hear more cases next month with a goal of helping at least 50 victims within the next year.

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