Instead, the path that leads them to that point frequently involves poverty, abuse, addiction, or some combination of the three. Often women committing these crimes - particularly on the low end of the economic scale - arguably are the primary victims in the situation in addition to being criminal offenders.
Building on the model established by drug courts, Dallas County will create a new specialty court aimed at prostitution using stronger probation and more aggressive judicial oversight, particularly for chronic offenders. Reports the Dallas Observer ("Courting Hookers," July 10):
Criminal District Judge Lana Myers will preside over the STAR (Strengthening, Transition and Recovery) Court, which will become one of the county's 11 "specialty courts"—those dedicated to handling specific criminal behaviors—and one of the first specialty courts for prostitutes in the country. The court, which opens on July 21, is the brain child of Criminal District Judge John Creuzot, the father of the diversion programs operating in Dallas County, which offer offenders an alternative to incarceration through intense supervision and treatment.If what Price means by "results" is to minimize cost per case, he may be disappointed. Lately that seems to be his primary concern. But if by "benefits" he'd include the notion that stronger probation may give more young women a chance to turn their lives around, these types of focused specialty courts pretty much represent the cutting edge, evidence-based approach most likely to reduce recidivism among chronic offenders.
"There are a lot of women who want to come into the normal world and don't want to be prostitutes, but every time they come to the courthouse, it's the same response," Creuzot says. "So what we're trying to do is be more proactive in what it is we're doing to address the underlying issues."
In early 2007, Creuzot approached Myers with his plans for a prostitution court. Although its parameters are still a work in progress, a candidate for STAR Court must having a pending charge for felony prostitution, which means she has already received two prior misdemeanor prostitution convictions. Like two of the county's drug diversion courts—DIVERT Court for first-time drug offenders and Re-entry Court for ex-convict drug offenders—the court will be designed to reduce recidivism and thereby ensure public safety through extensive judicial oversight. Defendants will be subject to intense supervision, both by a probation officer and Myers, who will hold STAR Court every Monday at 3 p.m. The court will use a state grant to pay for the probation officer and a licensed counselor, and it allows for a maximum of 50 cases. Myers says these cases will come from her court and possibly two other criminal district courts.
Myers feels she isn't naïve enough to believe that she's going to get every woman to change. "All I can do is give them the tools that they need and try to closely monitor them on probation so I know what's going on with them," she says. "And before they commit another offense, I'm trying to do everything I can to keep them from taking drugs, keep them off the street and find them housing."
If Myers needs any assistance, she might think about turning to Judge Kevin Sasinoski of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, who, since 2001, has been in charge of a similar court called PRIDE (Program for Reintegration and Development and Empowerment of Exploited Individuals). He sees violators—many with 10 to 15 prostitution offenses—on a monthly basis.
Much like the STAR Court will do, PRIDE works to give prostitutes counseling and drug treatment, along with helping them get jobs and re-establish family relationships. Sasinoski says five women graduated from the year-long program in May, and 11 are scheduled to complete the program in July.
"If we have five women that have gone through the process, turned their lives around with regard to drugs, got some self-esteem back and realize that they matter, then that's a success story," he says. "That's five that might not end up on a street corner."
Not every local official fully embraces the concept of a specialty prostitution court. "I suppose it's the chic thing to do, but every time I look up there is another specialty court," says Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. "That's all well and good as long as it gives benefits and gets results."
Some will fail, no doubt, but the failure rate of the current system is unacceptably high. The idea's certainly worth trying. Its success may depend on whether there's enough money for support services and to implement progressive sanctions for probation violators. I'm sure there's both crossover with what's involved in a drug court, and also specialized nuances to managing the group, some of which won't come out until the program is well underway.
Kudos to Dallas Judges Lana Meyers and John Creuzot for spearheading the project.