Eleven Years Later After Making Prostitution a Felony, Lawmakers Realize They Made a Mistake

In 2001, the Texas Legislature passed a law that made prostitution a state jail felony after a third misdemeanor conviction. The measure was intended to be tough on crime and help clear hookers from Dallas truck stops.

The law has done little to curb the sex trade, but it has sent many women to state prison who would otherwise have spent a night in county jail. Currently, more than 350 women are locked up for felony prostitution, each of them costing taxpayers some $15,000 to $18,000 per year to house. The law levied the same penalty on the johns, but none has been convicted of a felony under the law.

The Austin American-Statesman reported over the weekend that some lawmakers are wondering if the 2001 law is such a great idea. Prostitution is a nonviolent crime whose likeliest victim is the prostitute, and Texas is the only state to have made it a felony. More to the point, paying for counseling and treatment is a lot cheaper than paying to house someone in prison.

Karen Green doesn't think prison does any good anyways. "You know why? Because when you put them in jail and you don't rehabilitate them, when they come out they ... only know what they went in there with."

Green runs Haven of Love, a nonprofit that provides counseling and resources to help prostitutes get their lives on track.

The women who are on the street almost all have problems that drive them to sell themselves, Green says, whether it's a history of sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, or mental health issues. Arresting them or putting them in jail solves none of those problems.

The criminal justice system in Dallas County is beginning to adjust to the reality. The Dallas Police Department often directs prostitutes to places where they can get counseling, and judges have the option to dismiss felony prostitution charges if a woman successfully completes an 18-month counseling program with Haven of Love.

Still, about a third of the women locked up for prostitution in Texas are from Dallas County, meaning that smarter enforcement doesn't eliminate repeat prostitution.

Senate Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, is leading the push to repeal the provision making prostitution a felony.

"It's nuts that we've got this many prostitutes in prison, people that we're not afraid of, but we're just mad at," he told the Statesman. "By locking them up, we're not fixing the problem -- we're just spending a lot of money incarcerating them, warehousing them, when we could be spending a lot less getting them treatment so they can get out and stay out of this business."