A New Approach to Prostitution

British actor Hugh Grant's arrest in Los Angeles last June 27, for engaging in a lewd act in his white BMW off Sunset Boulevard, focused national attention on an age-old urban problem that has grown increasingly hazardous in recent years -- street prostitution."The attitude used to be: 'If you get something we'll give you a shot,'" says Norma Hotaling, a former prostitute who now helps women get off the streets. "We can't say that anymore. We're getting more and more resistant strains of gonorrhea and syphilis."The threat of AIDS and the spread of crack cocaine among prostitutes, with its accompanying violence, have also changed the rules -- for those who venture as Grant did, as well as those like Divine Brown caught in the act with him."What you thought was a little playful activity with no risks could lead you to the morgue," said neighborhood activist Phillip Faight.Faight and Hotaling are delivering these remarks on a Saturday at the San Francisco Police Academy, before an audience of 35 men who have been arrested on prostitution charges. The majority are "johns" who were caught soliciting women on the street. A few are male prostitutes.Rather than going through the court system and being convicted of a misdemeanor, they have chosen to participate in a day-long course designed to educate them on the consequences of their actions.The First Offender Prostitution Program, the first of its kind in the nation, is a joint effort of the Police Department, the District Attorney's office, and several health agencies in San Francisco. It has had over 400 "graduates" since it began in March 1995, and, according to police records, not a single one of them has since been re-arrested in California for prostitution."Before this program came in, a lot of people who were arrested a first time were back a second or a third time, and would get charged," said Assistant District Attorney Teri Jackson.After being featured on ABC's Oprah Winfrey Show last fall, the program began to get calls and visitors from police departments from all over the United States and Canada. In March, Toronto became the first city to implement its own program modeled after San Francisco's. Buffalo, NY., is hoping to be the second.The idea behind the program came from Lt. Joe Dutto, head of vice crimes for the San Francisco Police Department. When he took over the job two years ago, he found that most johns could avoid pleading guilty by paying a fine and doing 25 hours of community service work. But they were getting no counseling or education, he recalls.Together with Jackson and Hotaling, Dutto assembled a team to give monthly presentations on the legal, social and health ramifications of prostitution.To be eligible for the program, the participants must have no prior police record for prostitution. Female offenders may also attend, but most are ineligible because of previous arrests, and so far none has opted to take the course. The police department is starting a separate program to address women's needs.Those arrested must pay an administrative fee -- as opposed to a fine attached to conviction -- of up to $500, depending on their income. The fees make the program virtually self-funded; some of the money goes for paying the speakers, some for police overtime costs, and some for education and training of women and girls convicted of prostitution.The men who have gathered at the police academy look up wearily from their seats as prosecutor Jackson begins the session. "As one gentleman said to me today: 'It's the oldest profession. Why are we here?'" she asks rhetorically. "Because the people of California have decided that this is a crime. This is a prosecution program. We're not here to debate about whether prostitution should be legal."For the first hour, Jackson and Dutto outline the legal repercussions of being caught again anywhere in California -- of the mandatory AIDS testing upon first conviction and, if the test is positive, the near-certain jail time for a second conviction.Next hour, Hotaling gives a graphic presentation on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and the ease of getting them, even with condoms. "Can you tell when someone has an STD?" she questions. "Most of the time you can't. A lot of times an STD is just breaking out, but you never feel it, you never see it."Five young ex-prostitutes -- four women and one man -- describe how they became trapped in the street life against their will and turned to drugs out of desperation.Testifies Angel, 29, who now works at Walden House, a drug rehabilitation facility: "I grew up in the hippie scene of Haight-Ashbury. My Dad's best friend was my baby-sitter." Angel then describes how he and his wife sexually abused her when she was as young as five. "They thought it was cool to give a kid pot and acid. I grew up thinking I would never be good for anything but sex. If you ask a hundred women on the street, at least 80 of them would say they were sexually abused as children."Larry, 22, echoes her remarks. "They're out there either to support their habit or for a place to stay. Or 'cause they get thrown out at an early age and they had to do it."The next speakers are residents of neighborhoods plagued by prostitution, who explain how it attracts drug dealers, drives away legitimate business, reduces property values and adversely affects children. Observes Faight: "It's all tied together. It's a domino effect. All pimps are violent by their very nature, and they beat these women mercilessly. . . . I have seen elementary schoolchildren waiting for their school bus at 8 a.m., and right across the street, the businessmen are picking up a quickie on their way to work."In the backdrop is a display of 17 small quilts, designed in memory of local girls and women who died or disappeared as the result of prostitution.By day's end, most in the audience seem genuinely moved by the cumulative weight of the evidence. Some express regret for not taking such a course years before. One man speaks for many when he says: "This is one of the most incredible things I've ever done. Thank you for arresting me."Lt. Dutto says afterward: "I think a light bulb goes on after they hear all this stuff."Jackson, whose work for the program is unpaid, says, "The only reason other counties aren't implementing it is because they can't get a DA to volunteer." She donates her time at night and on weekends to help run the program.Sgt. Robert De Saglio, of Pelican Bay, Texas, agrees. "They can come up with a program," he asserts, "but who wants to take the initiative -- the police department, the district attorney's office, or a nonprofit organization?" De Saglio hopes to be able to attend the next session. "If I can get the mayor to sign the check, I'll be on my way to San Francisco."

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