"Nine of 10 girls who completed treatment remain off the streets," says Martha Felini, who's tracking the results and preparing a cost-effectiveness study. "That 90 percent rate right now has been untouchable in any other diversion program that we know of across the country." Still, less than a quarter of the women who entered treatment finished. "To a lot of people, success in this population is getting one woman into a productive life and out of the court system, so I'm cautiously positive," Felini says. "The test will be whether the short-term success turns out to be long-term success, and now we're too early in this project to determine if that's the case." The Pittsburgh court has had 200 women sentenced to its diversion program in five years, with 70 completing and just 5 percent re-offending (though they may have been arrested elsewhere since the court doesn't track them out of state).

One reason for early indications of success may be that Pennsylvania has stiff sentences for repeat offenders, and likewise, in Texas a third prostitution arrest is a felony. Though this can complicate women's efforts to get out of "the life" since a felony makes it extremely hard to get housing and employment, stiffer sentences mean judges have stronger authority to order treatment and can monitor the women for longer periods and expunge the offense from the records of those who complete the requirements. "What's critical is not just that people are mandated to treatment but that there's ongoing judicial oversight," says Mike Rempel, director of research at the Center for Court Innovation in New York. "When people are faced with real judicial consequences if they fail, then they're more likely to do well."

Strong judicial oversight is a crucial component of drug courts, which over the past two decades have cropped up in more than 1,500 localities and garnered a growing body of research. Studies, including one by the Government Accountability Office and another by a group of criminologists published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology in 2006, concluded that mandatory drug courts cut recidivism. From 2003 to 2005, the GAO evaluated 39 programs and reported participants were less likely to re-offend than those who did traditional jail time or probation, and those who completed the program were even less likely to re-offend. The 2006 study concluded that while the quality of drug divert courts varies, overall recidivism among participants ranged from 35 to 43 percent instead of 50 percent for those serving traditional jail time or probation.

Counselors and public health workers screen the
women at the command post, diverting many to drug re-hab.
Mark Graham
Counselors and public health workers screen the women at the command post, diverting many to drug re-hab.
Mark Graham

The day Myers gives Cristina a veiled ultimatum, Diane is working her shift at the call center. Afterward she heads home to her apartment, her teacup chihuahua and her boyfriend, whom she met in recovery and whom she thinks looks like Vin Diesel. For years, she spent the holidays in jail or in a motel, but this year she's busy with a to-do list: Bake a Coca-Cola cake for her boyfriend's family at Thanksgiving, celebrate two years sober with her best friend the first week of December, and plan a trip home to see her parents for Christmas. She has scheduled it all in her calendar, just like Myers taught her to. One day in November, she gets a call from her old probation officer, who still works with STAR Court and tells her that Myers wants her to come to court to help motivate the women, one of whom is struggling.

Diane agrees, and the next Monday she takes a seat in the front row of benches wearing a sweater, her blond, highlighted hair cropped at her jawline and light makeup accentuating her new professional look. The other women—including Cristina, who sits clutching the letter she wrote for Myers—give Diane and several other visiting graduates close attention, their expressions hopeful, almost reverent. Myers asks the graduates to stand. One of the women asks if finishing the program was easy. "No, it wasn't easy," says Pam, a woman in her 50s who before STAR Court worked as a prostitute off and on since she was 16.

Diane agrees. "You have to take action, even when you don't want to," she says. A third graduate adds, "You have to believe in yourself."

Cristina looks down and begins to cry. "I stopped believing in myself," she says. "But you believe in me." She shakes her head. "I apologize for not living up to my potential, because none of this stuff is going to happen unless I make it happen." She pauses and looks up. "I want to apologize to everybody for not doing my best." The room erupts in applause.

"I told you I'd never give up on you, but you have to do your part," Myers says. She asks Cristina to read her essay. Nervous, the woman stands and unfolds a piece of paper. In five years, she begins, she sees herself living in her own apartment, working a part-time job and continuing to work the 12 steps with a sponsor. A long time ago, she used to teach dance, she goes on, and she wants to teach again so girls keep themselves busy and avoid getting into trouble like she did.

The other women clap, and Myers takes a step toward Cristina. "Thank you for writing what I asked you to write," the judge says. "And you know, you can write about it and talk about it, but you have to do it. And you can."

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