International Justice Mission operates globally to protect persons with limited resources from violence and defend victims of abuse. With 17 field offices in 11 different countries, IJM focuses on various types of human rights abuses such as commercial sexual exploitation, child sexual assault, online commercial sexual exploitation, labor trafficking, police brutality, property grabbing, and citizenship rights. Before opening a field office, IJM conducts a baseline study to measure the prevalence of a particular crime and the effectiveness of the system in responding to it. Field offices generally focus only on one type of casework at a time so as to create a more powerful impact on the system. IJM offices operate based on a three phase work model, commencing with collaborative casework, where IJM investigators, lawyers, and aftercare workers support local police and prosecutors to capture perpetrators, hold them accountable, and restore the victims. The second phase of IJM’s work in a country is justice system transformation. Supporting local judges, police, prosecutors, and social workers IJM staff provides training, mentorship, and resources with the end goal of strengthening the local justice system to operate in a more effective way and protect vulnerable persons within the society. During phase three, IJM focuses on evaluation, by conducting qualitative and quantitative studies and comparing the results of these to the initial baseline study to demonstrate the changes brought about in the system. In phase three IJM also focuses on sustainability, taking steps to ensure the long-lasting changes to the system.
IJM in the Dominican Republic focuses on combating the commercial sexual exploitation of children. The field office is currently in phase one, working on individual client cases. Unlike in the United States, where prosecutors work alone, many Latin American countries allow lawyers from NGOs and private attorneys to work alongside the prosecutorial staff as “querellantes adhesivos” and participate in the trial as the victims’ representatives. The legal process starts when the perpetrators are arrested and the victim is rescued from a brothel or from the location where he or she is being exploited. At the request of the Public Ministry, IJM attorneys submit a judicial appeal to participate in the legal process as representatives of the rights of the minor. The initial hearing is conducted a few days after the arrest, to determine if the perpetrator will be allowed or denied bail. Since the cases that IJM works in the DR involve serious abuse of children, often judges deny bail, requiring a revision every three months to determine if the denial continues to be necessary. After a discovery period, IJM participates in the preliminary hearing where the prosecutors for the Public Ministry present an accusation against the perpetrator and if the judge accepts the accusation, the perpetrator is formally charged. Only one judge presides over the first two hearings. The final stage in the process is the trial. Similar to the US, in the DR, the trial is an oral process with the prosecutor and IJM on one side and either the private or public defense attorney on the other side. Following the custom of most countries in the world, there are no juries, and thus a panel of three judges presides over the trial. IJM attorneys are permitted to present evidence and cross examine witnesses. At the conclusion of the trial the judges deliberate and dictate a sentence. The maximum sentence for any crime in the DR is thirty years. Sentences for sexual exploitation range from three to ten years and sentences for human trafficking from three to twenty-five. The maximum sentence achieved through the participation of IJM in a human trafficking case was twenty years.
During my time here, I have been able to attend several bail revision hearings and a preliminary hearing with the IJM attorneys. During the hearings, following the French legal tradition, each side wears a black toga with a different color stripe indicating their role in the legal process. The judges’ togas contain a purple stripe, the defense attorneys a green one, the prosecutors wear blue, and private attorneys have white. In many ways the courtroom is similar to the US with an oral, adversarial process. Unfortunately, the hearings are continually pushed back because of a lack of resources to transfer the perpetrator from custody to court or from miscommunications between the Public Ministry and the Public Defender’s Office. In addition to attending hearings, I have spent time researching extradition laws and treaties to determine whether a US citizen, charged with commercial sexual exploitation of a minor in the DR, can be extradited to the US to be prosecuted under the US PROTECT Act. Because the PROTECT Act criminalizes sex tourism, US citizens arrested for exploiting minors in other countries can be prosecuted under in the US under US federal law. My experience in the DR has been incredibly rewarding as I am learning about the legal system in another Latin American country and exploring international law and its application to cases of commercial sexual exploitation.