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Dallas prostitutes get option for help, not jail

The city is taking a new approach to the world's oldest profession. Police treat prostitutes as sex crime victims, offering many a chance to clean up and get off the streets.
Saving Prostitutes
Victim's advocate and survivor Ateba Crocker, left, and social worker Janie Metinger, right, comfort a 17-year-old arrested for prostitution as part of an intervention program in Dallas.Lm Otero / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It was nearly midnight in a cramped mobile courtroom in the back of an 18-wheeler, and a prostitute in a Tweety Bird shirt was apologizing to a judge for falling asleep during her hearing.

She hadn't slept for three days and was coming down from a crack high, she explained. The combination left her too impaired to make a choice that only Dallas offers prostitutes: Go to rehab or go to jail.

With those options, the city is taking a new approach to the world's oldest profession. Police treat prostitutes as sex crime victims, offering many a chance to clean up and get off the streets.

The program's advocates acknowledge its success has been limited — about half of the 375 women have chosen rehab, and just 21 have turned their lives around. But authorities say they're gaining the women's trust and have gotten leads on unsolved crimes.

The program could soon spread beyond Dallas. More than 200 law enforcement agents from the U.S. and Canada attended the National Prostitution Diversion conference here in November. Since then, groups from Edmonton, Atlanta and Fort Worth have asked for more information about the program.

"We are the pioneers, I suppose," said Renee Breazeale, program director for Homeward Bound, a nonprofit detoxification and counseling center in Dallas. "It's the only police-led program and represents a change of culture for law enforcement."

Prostitution diversion
The program starts with a monthly roundup of prostitutes in an area health officials consider the national epicenter of syphilis. Dallas vice police have identified more than 1,300 prostitutes working four truck stops that serve more than 2,000 big rigs a day.

"Truckers were conducting counter-surveillance for prostitutes," Dallas police Sgt. Louis Felini said. "They let them use CB radios to advertise prostitution and drugs. As soon as a squad car entered the lot, every truck driver along I-20 knew how many cops and where they were."

Arresting prostitutes accomplished little. Many considered going to jail part of the cost of doing business and were back at the truck stops within 48 hours, Felini said.

Deciding to try something new, he found five of the worst-off women spots in Homeward Bound. All eventually gave up prostitution, and Felini had an idea.

"If we were able to do that for the worst of the worst, then maybe we could do that on a much larger scale," he said.

His brainstorm became the Prostitution Diversion Initiative. Police set up a staging area once a month in a vacant lot near the truck stops. Four mobile command trucks surround folding tables and chairs where social service workers set up shop. The action usually begins about 7 p.m. and runs until 3 a.m.

Police confiscate the prostitutes' property and interview them for information about criminal activity, such as whether pimps are running underage prostitutes out of area motels. Then social service workers assess the women's drug, alcohol and mental health counseling needs. The women get STD tests and other medical care at a mobile health clinic.

The last stop of the night is the mobile courtroom. If the women have no felony warrants and seem sincere, the judge gives them the opportunity to avoid jail and enter rehab. After 45 days of inpatient counseling, they receive help with education, child care and housing.

Long-term value
Even though the program's rate of success is modest at best, there is long-term value in cultivating prostitutes as sources, Felini said. Police have developed leads on a couple of unsolved homicides, and the women are learning to trust officers.

"Maybe a year from now, I might hear from one who says, 'You might want to take a look at this person,'" Felini said.

Many of the prostitutes detained last month didn't seem to know what was going on. A teenager in a pink jumpsuit and pink rubber clogs sat on the ground, her back against a truck, staring blankly. She turned her head and vomited.

Another woman in 4-inch heels and a strapless dress that didn't quite cover her rear tottered through the staging area. Later, she told the judge she was not a prostitute, her cringe-inducing outfit notwithstanding.

"That's just how I dress," she said.

The prostitutes range in age from their teens to their 60s. More than half have children. Nearly all abuse drugs.

"The truck stop prostitute is at the bottom rung of prostitution," Felini said. "They are trading sex for survival needs: food, a place to sleep."

Karen Green, 47, works as an advocate for the prostitutes. She was one of them until a prison counseling program helped her clean up 13 years ago.

"People think they are criminals, but they are victims," Green said. "They've never had a break. They don't know what living right is."