It seemed at times like a traditional court hearing. The judge peered down from the bench at the defendant as the parole officer gave her latest report.

But then some comments made the assistant district attorney look up from her papers. "I want you to realize that you don't have to be in a relationship with a man to be valuable," Assistant D.A. Shea Rhodes told the defendant.

This was no ordinary proceeding. This was Project Dawn Court, Philadelphia's treatment option for prostitution where sex workers opt to seek healing and an escape from the cycle of prostitution.

The room was filled with women in authority, and the entire team - parole officer, judge, district attorney, public defender, and social worker - was discussing the defendant's impending marriage to a former abuser.

"I want everything for you, happiness, success, friends. I believe in you so much, but it is not OK with me for anyone to hit you ever," Rhodes continued. "And you know, to hit someone is a crime."

The woman was in court for her monthly checkup and agreed to let a reporter watch as long as she stayed anonymous. Project Dawn is one of a handful of prostitution treatment courts across the country. Part court and part therapy, the program offers a long, intensive regimen for women with multiple prostitution offenses.

Women must apply to the program and complete four rigorous phases, ranging from drug and alcohol recovery to sexual trauma therapy.

The four phases, lasting from 30 to 125 days, take at least a year. If a woman backtracks by falling behind or testing positive for drugs, she must restart the phase and perform retributive actions, called sanctions, such as writing an essay or doing community service.

When participants finish, they graduate and their cases are dismissed with prejudice. If, after graduation, they complete a year without another prostitution or drug-use offense, the case is expunged.

The program was launched in January 2010 with 28 women, and has graduated or successfully transitioned more than 70 percent of its participants. Officials say they have expunged some criminal records but couldn't yet give a precise number.

An additional 25 women have begun the program since May, and no one has dropped out so far. The program hopes to expand to 70 women a year with a recent, three-year $250,000 federal grant.

Prostitution remains a significant industry in Philadelphia. Police typically arrest more than 800 women a year - along with about 200 johns, police records show - and nearly a third of women in the city's jail carry at least one prostitution offense.

Philadelphia Police Lt. Charles Green of the Citywide Vice Enforcement Unit said repeat offenders crowd the court dockets. "We've seen it where we arrest someone on a Saturday, and on a Tuesday, she's back out there doing it again."

Drugs are often linked to the sex trade. Most of the women jailed for prostitution report a drug addiction, usually crack or heroin.

Many have a long history of mental illness or trauma dating back to childhood, which in turn fuels drug addiction and dependence on the sex trade. "These people don't need to be in jail," said J.P. West, director of partial hospital services at the Joseph J. Peters Institute in Philadelphia, which helps treat the women. "We are making criminals out of someone who suffered trauma."

Thomas Haworth, director of the institute's Child and Adolescent Program, said prostitutes "are typically people who have had a terrible experience of being out of control. And so anger, aggression, sometimes sex are ways to have control."

Many also "have been sexualized at young ages so their understanding of themselves has been altered by that early sexualization," Haworth continued. "Their value has been kind of placed around their sexual identity as opposed to more globally for them. So helping to restructure that identity . . . takes time."

The program's goal is to heal the underlying causes of sex work, and give the women tools to change their lives.

"It sounds easy, but it's a really difficult program," said Lilly, a participant who asked that her last name not be used due to the stigma of the sex trade. She had graduated, earning a certificate, and hugs from the courtroom team, after two years, and multiple prison stints before that.

Still, she added, "I'd rather be doing [the program] than be in jail."

Mary DeFusco represents the women as a public defender, and was one of the creators of the court.

"I saw so many prostitution files crossing my desk every day . . . thousands of misdemeanors. . . . It was a population nobody could seem to do anything with but something no one felt vindictive about."

Humanizing the courtroom is key to making the program work, DeFusco said. "The judge becomes a part of the person's therapy. The [women are] always thinking in the back of their mind, 'what would the judge say?'

"They are not used to judges saying 'good job, I'm proud of you,' " DeFusco said. "It's jaw-dropping for them."

Along with nurturing, Project Dawn Court retains the threat of legal action.

Assistant D.A. Rhodes said she will say when appropriate " 'I'm sorry that you used heroin, and I appreciate that that is your coping mechanism, but at the end of the day, heroin is illegal and my office will prosecute you if [you are] caught.' You can marry the two."

Jeannette Cassalia, 30, came to court in shorts and a T-shirt. When she spoke, she admitted to a relapse - using drugs in the last month - and read a letter she wrote about her experience before a judge ordered it.

She told of her long struggle with the eating disorder bulimia and how it fueled her drug use. "When I used drugs, I wouldn't purge, it was a miracle," she read. She described a plan that included exercise to keep her eating disorder and drug use at bay.

Cassalia said she did sex work for eight years and was using heroin and cocaine until she joined Project Dawn Court in April. "You have to want to change your life if this program is going to work. You can't [bungle] it, you can't pretend, you can't 'fake it till you make it.' This is raw."

"I love going to court every month," Cassalia said. "We have lost so many relationships, we've had people use us. . . . They're showing us how to love again and be loved."

Because the program is so new, little research has been done on its effectiveness and long-term success. Corey Shdaimah, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, is researching Project Dawn and similar courts.

Overall, she found participants supportive of the court and its accountability mechanisms.

But Shdaimah recounted the story of a former participant who became homeless after the program, moved back in with an abusive boyfriend, and struggled with drug relapse.

"You've given people two years or one year of a better life, and that's better than jail," Shdaimah said. Even though "it can't solve all the biggest problems, I think I would still support it."

Contact Allyn Gaestel at agaestel@philly.com.