Pomona public defender Chrashawn Jackson knew that if she wanted to create a grassroots program to cut through the blight of human trafficking in her hometown, there was only one way to do it–by walking into the Blade.The approximately 1-mile stretch of Holt Ave. in Pomona is one of several infamous corridors of prostitution and human trafficking in Southern California. Commonly referred to as “Blades,” these areas cluttered with cracked sidewalks and cheap motels are where Jackson would often spend hours walking up and down the street, flagging down young sex workers–not to shame or threaten them, but to offer them purses filled with hygiene products, food gift cards and information about a program she’d started that could potentially give them a way out of the dangerous life of sex work.

Going beyond the call of duty felt like a necessity for Jackson, who says she is used to seeing young boys, girls and non-binary youth, some as young as 13 and 14, becoming casualties of the sex trade at the hands of manipulative and violent pimps. Pomona has long been considered one of the most prevalent areas for prostitution in LA County.

According to a report from the Pomona Police Department, between 2020 and 2021, prostitution court cases during the pandemic more than doubled from 217 to 535, along with arrests and misdemeanor charges that typically wind up with sex workers back on the street in a matter of hours or days. It’s part of a cycle of physical and psychological abuse that often happens before the proper age of consent, and often to young people of color who are already in dire financial straits and coming out of the foster care system.

“So many of our young kids are in foster care, young girls particularly, and pimps know where the foster transitional homes are,” Jackson says. “They would just wait down the street and pick them off like fruit off a tree and put them out there on the Blade.”

With the support of local law enforcement and the courts, Jackson began a human trafficking diversion program in 2019 to not only get sex workers off the street and into jobs, but also provide them with counseling, child care for their kids, support groups, one-on-one follow-up check-ins to track their progress and a host of other services. What started as a small but successful pilot program has recently become the template for a county-wide effort.

Advancing Pomona’s Pilot Program

At the end of March, after years of pushing for more support for her program, LA District Attorney George Gascón announced that LA County would be adopting a Human Trafficking Diversion program inspired by Jackson’s efforts.

“Many human trafficking victims feel trapped, helpless and isolated with no one to trust and nowhere to turn,” Gascón said in a press statement. “Through this program, victims will receive healing, restoration and rehabilitation rather than retribution that has existed for far too long in our criminal justice system.”

Victims in the county-wide program will receive specialized trauma-based care, individual and group counseling for alcohol and substance abuse, mental health treatment, job training, career opportunities, educational and financial planning, resume services and clearance of their criminal records.

Those who are currently or have previously been identified as human trafficking victims, and who have any misdemeanor or non-serious, non-violent felony convictions, are eligible. Once eligible, participants will be referred from any defense attorney, prosecutor or local law enforcement agencies.

A judge will approve the suitability for each participant, who will then be assigned to a community-based organization for treatment.

After someone completes the diversionary program, a judge can dismiss and vacate the person’s arrest, convictions and probation violations. The program will be launched at the Pomona courthouse with the hope that it will be implemented in other parts of Los Angeles County in areas like South LA and Compton, home to notorious Blades on Figueroa Street and Long Beach Blvd.

For the DA’s office, the adoption of Jackson’s program is a chance to do away with the status quo of incarceration that breeds a cycle of recidivism in favor of a more comprehensive and compassionate method of combating human trafficking.

“When people are charged with the crimes or low-level felonies and misdemeanors, we have an opportunity there to either provide them resources that will prevent them from recidivating, or we can just punish and then warehouse people until a sufficient time has passed,” said Tiffiny Blackwell, a DA special advisor and community liaison who has also represented sex workers as a public defender. “We decided that because of their trauma, they deserve a different touch.”

Helping Sex Workers Find a Way Out

Though the DA-backed version of Jackson’s plan is only just beginning, the methods that inspired it have become cemented in Pomona with the collaboration between the public defender’s office, the Pomona PD and community organizations — all working to improve the lives of sex workers.

Jackson said one of the main ways she’s been able to do this is with the help of the Rising Scholars Program, which helps guide young people through the educational system by developing a plan for college, getting financial aid and free tutoring.

She also partnered with the Net Zero Electrical Training Program in Pomona that allows her clients to get access to a union for an electrical journeypersons program, which can get them training for jobs that start at $22 per hour with benefits and tops out at $87 per hour.

Most importantly, with the support of the court system, participants in the diversion program are eligible to have their past records expunged, cleared of any prior prostitution charges that would hinder them getting a job in the future.

“No, no one wants to be 40 years old with a string of prostitution charges on their record. That’s going to limit where they can live, where they can go get a job,” Jackson says.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) that was recently signed by Gascón last month is a collaborative effort that will clear the criminal record of human trafficking victims.

Jackson says a major part of her program’s success has been in the follow-up stages, when young people she works with have gone through the steps to get a career and become financially independent.

She cites the example of one young woman who went through the program and managed to relocate her with her family in Stockton. After earning $3,000 in scholarships through various scholarship programs Jackson linked her up with, the woman purchased a laptop and a Wi-Fi hotspot for school in order to complete her Certified Nursing Assistant program. She recently became a Licensed Vocation Nurse and is now living in her own apartment.

Jackson hopes success stories from the program will inspire other cities to use Pomona as a template to cut down Blades across the country by showing sex workers a level of care and decency they’ve rarely experienced.

“So many times, we just want to offer these young people a quick fix. ‘Oh, we’ll help you get a job and I will help you get a job in a retail store.’ That doesn’t pay bills for a lot of people,” Jackson says. “We’re trying to give them career opportunities…We hope that this will be the model for the rest of LA County and for other jurisdictions.”

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