In the beginning, many street cops dismissed Felini's endeavor as the "Hug-a-Ho" program. Two years later, Dallas' model is attracting attention from agencies and researchers nationwide. The city in November held the first National Prostitute Diversion Conference, which was attended by police officers, attorneys and social workers from across the country. The Dallas setup is just one piece of a growing shift in the way America's justice system deals with low-level crime. Specialty courts for prostitutes are the latest in a collection of so-called divert courts that have sprung up in multiple states to address troublesome repeat offenses, from drug use and drunk driving to homelessness and public disorder. In the years since the first drug court opened in Miami in 1989 and Manhattan's Midtown Community Court helped clean up Times Square in the '90s, drug courts have become the norm in most states. The nonprofit Center for Court Innovation has partnered with the state of New York to open what they call "problem-solving courts" in most of Manhattan's five boroughs, and San Francisco recently opened its Community Justice Center to halt the "revolving door" of petty crime in the Tenderloin. As cities face strapped budgets and large jail populations, they're increasingly intrigued by reports that these new collaborations between law enforcement and social services slash recidivism and costs at the same time.

"It's not a silver bullet, but it definitely slows the rate of new offending," says John Roman, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute who's finishing a government-funded evaluation of the country's drug courts. "Any judge you talk to who runs one of these courts will tell you that before these programs, they just saw the same offenders over and over again, and that's changed. I think part of the reduction in crime we've seen in recent years is due to the fact that a lot of high-rate offenders have been helped by specialized courts." Since there's still little data to prove the effectiveness of the new approach to prostitution, advocates have relied on the growing body of research on drug courts, which shows the programs are more successful than traditional jail and probation at reducing recidivism. "Ten to 20 percent of people who go through these programs—roughly 70,000 a year through drug court and another 75,000 through another type of specialized court—won't commit new crimes," Roman says. "Over time, that has a cumulative effect that becomes very large."

The trend unites the courts' power to mete out punishment with social services' ability to rehabilitate, which means judges are expanding their roles as legal arbiters to become cheerleaders and counselors as well. The innovation is a sea change in the way the justice system views prostitutes. Instead of criminals who will likely move in and out of jail and eventually wind up dead, they're seen as victims who, in most cases, were driven to the streets by sexual abuse and desperation and who, with the right support, might actually be able to lead productive, healthy lives. There are courts for prostitutes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., and pilot programs have been authorized in Reno, Nevada; Baltimore, Maryland; and Columbus, Ohio. Even in cities without formal prostitution courts such as Phoenix, San Francisco, Los Angeles and St. Paul, Minnesota, nonprofits that help sex workers exit "the life" have proliferated and often work with local authorities.

Judge Myers led the women of STAR  court in planting flowers
at  the courthouse as part of their community service.
Mark Graham
Judge Myers led the women of STAR court in planting flowers at the courthouse as part of their community service.
Mark Graham

"It's fascinating that these programs emerged independently across the country, but it makes sense," says Liberty Aldrich, legal counsel and a family violence specialist with the Center for Court Innovation in New York. "It's absolutely apparent when you work with these women that they're struggling with incredible issues of domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual violence. We want to help these women change their lives, and if we want to change what's happening, we have to change our approach."

Judge Myers is troubled when she arrives at court on a Monday in late October. Since STAR Court began, there always seems to be one woman whose struggles occupy her thoughts even after she leaves the courthouse and whose story she tells her husband once she gets home. Lately, the focus of her worry is Cristina, a 42-year-old woman who has hit a brick wall after nearly a year in the program.

Cristina's life story reads like a blueprint for a life of prostitution: endures being molested and raped by an elder brother, flees and becomes a teen runaway, meets an older man who says he loves her but doubles as a pimp, marries the man and has multiple children, turns to crack and prostitution when he leaves. After 16 years on the streets as Peaches, Cristina—not her real name—was arrested for the 10th time and, exhausted and battling bipolar disorder, agreed to participate in STAR Court. She's gone to rehab, been placed on psychiatric medications and nearly has a year clean and sober, but recently she's stopped attending her Narcotics Anonymous meetings and group counseling sessions.

Myers, petite and impeccably dressed in a suit and earrings, her short blond hair tucked behind her ears, stands before the group and talks with each woman about her progress. When she gets to Cristina, she looks at the woman's round brown face and sighs. She has deliberated—should she just send the woman back to jail and traditional probation?—and ultimately opts to employ the tough-love technique she has learned through trial and error over the past 18 months.

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