Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Revolving door spurs officials to contemplate eliminating felony prostitution enhancement

"Few other states imprison prostitutes as does Texas, which has a long history of locking higher percentages of its lawbreakers in state prisons than all but a few other states," reported Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman last week. "The felony prostitution charge was enacted when the Legislature was still in the throes of its lock-em-up, three-strikes-and-you're-out fervor," he wrote, though Grits would argue that with dozens of new crimes created every legislative session, that fervor has not yet entirely abated. In any event, now legislators and even some prison officials are considering reversing the ill-conceived decision to make prostitution a felony after three misdemeanor convictions. Reported Ward ("Texas rethinks law making repeat prostitution a felony," Aug. 25):
Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist and recognized national expert on prostitution who heads the San Francisco-based Prostitution Research and Education organization, said Texas is the only state she knows of that makes prostitution a felony. "Jail is simply not the place for these women ... who have other issues," she said. "People look at them as drug addicts who were forced into the sex trade."

Under the 2001 law, prostitutes and their customers can be sent to a state jail for up to two years on a fourth-degree felony — although no customers are currently doing time and probably have not, officials said.

Gradually, philosophies changed and people began questioning whether sending women away to a prison is the best solution. Even some prison officials privately concede the law became just another — more expensive — revolving door. Without specialized treatment, women could cycle through prison several times — much as they do in county jails without programs. ...
State leaders say the program illustrates why prostitutes should never have been sentenced to prison in the first place. It costs $18,538 to house a convict in state prison for a year and about $15,500 in a lower-security state jail, according to Legislative Budget Board calculations. By contrast, a community-based program costs about $4,300 a year.
About 350 women are serving time at TDCJ for prostitution and related charges, said the article. Grits certainly agrees that strong probation programs have a better chance than prison of turning these women's life around - the same is true for many repeat drug offenders in prison as well. But the key as always will be properly funding probation programming, and on that score Grits remains far from sanguine: In the last legislative session Texas reverted to its lock-em-up ways to keep understaffed prison units open at the expense of probation programming.

Still, this is the dynamic - reducing incarceration and shifting part of the savings to strengthen community supervision - which offers the best hope for avoiding a mid-nine figures boost in TDCJ's budget in 2013, so I'm glad to see legislators and prison officials thinking along these lines, even if the scope of this particular proposal remains relatively narrow.

MORE: From the Unfair Park blog. AND MORE: See a related editorial from the Austin Statesman.  

ALSO: A reader emailed to point out that among women's units at TDCJ, "Hilltop and Bridgeport ... both have maximum capacities of fewer than 350." Of those, the reader added, "Bridgeport is a 'pre-parole' facility, so shuttering it may not be feasible for other programmatic reasons, but Hilltop is just a regular prison," so conceivably eliminating the prostitution enhancement could allow the state to close an entire women's prison unit. Just sayin' ...


Gritsforbreakfast said...

FYI, a comment was deleted by the blog administrator which libeled one of the people quoted in Ward's story. Stay classy, people. Just because the topic involves sex doesn't mean one must automatically stoop to the gutter.

Trixie Mathews said...

While it might be a crime to become a prostitute, there are still other ways to punish them that the government can afford to implement. Civic action like street cleaning is an example.