One evening last month, police invited reporters to an empty lot at Lancaster Road and Interstate 20, an area frequented by the sex workers who serve the long-haul truckers that pass through. The goal was to showcase Dallas' successful and innovative prostitution diversion program and to encourage the nationwide adoption of a voluntary DNA database intended to help ID the otherwise unidentifiable women who tend to wind up dead along trucking routes and, ideally, track down the killers that prey on them.
Texas lawmakers and criminal justice advocates, it seems, have gotten the message. Senator John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Justice Committee, introduced a bill to require the state's larger counties to take a Dallas-like approach to prostitution.
State Representative Eric Johnson of Dallas and Senator Jose Rodriguez have followed up with legislation that would explicitly make such pre-trial diversion programs an option and cap punishment for offering to engage in prostitution at a class A misdemeanor.
Those measures got some momentum today when the nonprofit Texas Criminal Justice Coalition released a report urging the legislature to adopt that and similar reforms statewide.
The TCJC report announces that Texas' lock-em-up approach to the sex trade has failed miserably. Despite having some of the harshest laws (the report says Texas is the only state in which prostitution is a felony) and highest incarceration rates for sex workers, prostitution is rampant.
Turns out, throwing hookers in jail does nothing to address the substance abuse or mental health issues that tend to drive women into the trade. It also makes it more difficult for prostitutes to leave the trade, since legitimate employers are generally reluctant to hire felons.
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"Individuals become involved with prostitution for a variety of reasons," says Ana Yanez-Correa. "It may be a conscious, voluntary decision; it may be a means of survival; or it may have been forced upon them. These women and men are far more likely to suffer from mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, and past trauma than both the general population and many other individuals entering the criminal justice system. They need real help, and we believe these policies are a smart step for Texas."
That ground has been covered many times before and, although there seems to be a growing recognition in Austin that the current system doesn't work, efforts to change it by, for example, repealing the 2001 law that makes repeat prostitution a state jail felony have gotten nowhere. Too touchy-feely, one assumes.
So TCJC shifts its argument to firmer ground: money. It takes more than $15,000 to house a prisoner in a state jail, which participation in a community-based rehabilitation program costs $4,300. Adopting the Dallas model and once again classifying prostitution as a misdemeanor would save Texas $4 million per year, the report says.
In other words, this is one of the cases in which reform is both the morally right and fiscally responsible thing to do.