By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Robyn Byers never imagined she'd become a prostitute, but the risk factors were there. She was abused sexually, emotionally and physically as a child, and she grew up in a dysfunctional family.
While dealing with a difficult divorce, she smoked marijuana to ease the pain and eventually moved on to crystal meth. While picking up a bag of weed from her dealer one day, Byers was offered crack cocaine for the first time.
"I tried it, and I liked it," she says. "It was like instant wow. I wanted some more of it."
Suddenly she developed an expensive habit that was impossible to afford on her receptionist's salary. And one night while getting high with a friend, she was told about a truck stop where men would pay for sex.
The friend took Byers to the Truck Stop Villa Inn Motel in Mesquite, where she was shown the ropes. "We ended up earning some cash, and I thought it was better than sleeping with drug dealers to get dope."
After selling her body for drug money for approximately a year, she left when other hookers started getting busted. A truck driver took her to South Lancaster Road and Interstate 20—Dallas' hot spot for prostitution—and she spent another 11 years living in nearby motels and spending time in and out of jail.
If Dallas County's new STAR Court had been in place during her nights on the street, Byers would have been a perfect candidate for the intervention it plans to provide to habitual prostitutes. 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.
"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."