Project Dawn Court is a problem-solving court designed to aid sex workers through recovery.

As Judge Marsha Neifield entered the room, everyone in Project Dawn Court stood up. The women passed around a “congratulations” card for one of the graduating women as a child ran through the rows in the courtroom, giving high-fives.

Once Judge Neifield was seated, everyone sat down and they began a memorial for one of the participants who had recently died from an overdose. With tears in her eyes, Judge Neifield said a few words of the “feisty” woman they called a friend, mother, and protector.

Linda Muraresku, one of the parole officers affiliated with Project Dawn Court, lifted up her leg to show off her sneakers a highlighter yellow. She wore them in memoriam, and said the woman they had lost always told her they were “the ugliest shoes she’s ever seen.”

Founded in 2010, Project Dawn Court is a “problem-solving court” for sex workers in Philadelphia.

“It was actually one of the first of its kind in the country that focused exclusively on prostituted women,” said Sarah Robinson-Barberra, a former assistant defender with Project Dawn Court.

With the criminalization and stigma around sex work, there is a limited number of resources for sex workers. There are a few organizations, such as Prevention Point and Project Safe, that provide resources like safe sex tools such as condoms and lube. However, in Pennsylvania, Project Dawn Court is the only organization that provides legal agency for sex workers.

But not everyone qualifies.

According to Robinson-Barberra, in order to qualify for Project Dawn Court, the participant must meet a number of requirements: they must be assigned female at birth, they have to have at least three prostitution-related charges with no convictions for violent offenses, and they can not be charged with procuring, which is also known as “pimping”.

Those who meet these requirements are offered an array of services, including support with housing and recovery, and post-conviction relief.

According to Robinson-Barberra, post-conviction relief is an umbrella term for ways to alleviate the convictions of someone’s record. Project Dawn Court primarily focuses on vacating convictions, which according to Robinson-Barberra is something specific to sex trafficking victims. She said Pennsylvania law still has room for improvement.

“Compared to, like, our neighbors in New Jersey, our law is better because we have at least six crimes, although we should have more,” she said.

“We don’t force people to be on medication, but we do encourage medically-assisted treatment."

— Sarah Robinson-Barberra, Former assistant defender with Project Dawn Court

In March 2019, the American Bar Association and the Polaris Project, a non-profit that aims to fight against modern slavery and human trafficking, released a state report card that graded all of the states’ criminal record relief laws for survivors of human trafficking. In the report, Pennsylvania, along with 28 other states, received an F-rating.

These grades were based on a number of criteria: the range of relief, arrests and adjudications relief, offenses covered, judicial discretion, nexus to trafficking, time limits and wait times, hearing requirement, the burden of proof, official documentation, confidentiality, and additional restrictive conditions on relief.

Pennsylvania has only six prostitution-related crimes that fall under the qualifications for vacating a conviction. They include prostitution, obstruction of the highway, open lewdness, criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, and drug possession.

Project Dawn Court aims to erase these charges for the women in its program through a series of four phases, which includes finding employment, housing, and recovery.

While the four phases can take as little as a year to complete, it takes the women, on average, about two-and-a-half years to finish the program. If a participant gets re-arrested, they are pushed back to phase one. If they start using drugs again, they have to restart their current phase. When they complete a phase, they are awarded a prize and a certificate.

While it’s not always the case, more often than not, the women who walk into Project Dawn Court are also struggling with substance use disorders. Robinson-Barberra said that the program works with other existing organizations to provide drug and alcohol treatment, including inpatient and outpatient therapy.

“We don’t force people to be on medication, but we do encourage medically-assisted treatment,” she said.

Virginia*, a recent graduate of Project Dawn Court, began the program in early 2017 after being in and out of jail and struggling with recovery for 13 years. After one arrest, Virginia was approached by Robinson-Barberra to enter Project Dawn Court.

“I didn’t care what it took I told her yes,” Virginia said.

“I’m actually in a position in my life where I can go and work on getting my daughter back. They gave me the stability and confidence to do that.”

— Virginia, Former Project Dawn Court participant

Virginia was back and forth between programs and jail for months before she returned to the streets. After getting jumped, she spent three days in a coma and was kept under supervision for a week after being diagnosed with pneumonia.

“Of course I ran back to the streets,” she said. “I was afraid of going back to jail.”

Because she wasn’t seeking the right medical treatment, the pneumonia traveled to her lungs, spine, and hip bones, leaving her unable to walk, speak, or breathe. After a lung surgery and being admitted to the hospital for two months, Virginia was approached again, this time by her parole officer.

“My P.O. at Project Dawn gave me a chance,” she said. “They said if I can get into the program, they wouldn’t arrest me. So that’s what I did, and since December 11, 2017, I have been busting my ass and haven’t put a needle in my neck.”

After graduating from Project Dawn Court in February 2019, Virginia worked as a dispatcher for a taxi company. She was working on an application to become a certified recovery specialist when she died on May 11, 2019.  

“I’m actually in a position in my life where I can go and work on getting my daughter back,” Virginia said before her death. “They gave me the stability and confidence to do that.”

Although Project Dawn also helps its women get into housing programs, finding the proper housing for those in recovery can be very tricky, Robinson-Barberra said.

“Some participants do reside in independent living, either with loved ones or parents or something,” Robinson-Barberra said. “When I would interview women for the program, I would be like, ‘Do you have kids at home? Do you want to live at home? Because if you do, you might not want to take this program, because the judge has say over where you live.’”

"It’s just amazing to see each and everybody grow. If somebody falls back or gets knocked down, we were there to help them.”

— Virginia, Former Project Dawn Court participant

However, a lot of housing excludes people in their early stages of recovery. For instance, Dawn’s Place, a non-profit housing organization for sex workers in Philadelphia, does not accept participants who are on methadone or those who are less than three months into their recovery. The organization does accept participants who take Suboxone — the brand name for buprenorphine, a medication used to treat opioid use disorder — according to Robinson-Barberra. This is because methadone requires the person to leave their house every day, she said.

“It’s a tried and true method,” Robinson-Barberra said. “A lot of the people who are successful through their program never relapse, so that’s amazing. But you do live with a bunch of nuns, and it’s not for everybody.”

Because of the program’s gender and conviction restrictions, many people have been turned away from these services, she said.

“I think it’s only been like 200 or so women who have actually entered and been through the program,” Robinson-Barberra said. “A lot more have been interviewed and spoken to about the program, but not everyone takes it.”

According to Robinson-Barberra, the court can be costly and most women do not have the ability to pay off their trial. If they can’t pay for the cost of prosecuting their case, a bench warrant can be issued for their arrest, and they can be sent back to jail along with fines and interest rates. Project Dawn is working towards extending its services to court cost relief, which would aid the participants in paying off their debts.

According to Robinson-Barberra, most women leave with about two thousand dollars in fines on each account.

“They’re never ever, ever going to be able to pay that off,” she said. “So they’re never ever, ever going to get an expungement for that.”

In addition to helping sex workers navigate the criminal justice, treatment, and housing systems, Project Dawn Court also helps women build relationships with one another. Most of the women knew each other prior to entering the program, Virginia said.

“I know most of them from the jail or the streets,” she said. “And it’s just amazing to see each and everybody grow. If somebody falls back or gets knocked down, we were there to help them.”

“We are a family in this court,” Judge Neifield said.

*Names marked with an asterisk are those of people who requested we use their first name only due to the sensitivity of the subject matter.