An Innovative Court Offers New Tricks to Turn Ex-Prostitutes into Real Working Girls

Diane once considered herself above other prostitutes. In nearly 20 years working highway truck stops, downtown street corners and even a brothel in Nevada, for the most part she'd managed to shower often, avoid beatings and stay in motels or with regulars, some who called her ma'am and bought her clothes and meals. All that began to change in 2007. As she edged toward 40, bone-deep weariness and a sinking sense of doom settled in.

Though she'd always told herself being a hooker was temporary, the tricks and the highs and the arrests stretched on for years, until one day she awoke as a 40-year-old pacing the streets of downtown Dallas in the same dirty brown dress she'd been wearing for days. She didn't have the energy to care anymore. Increasingly, she used crack to numb the nagging disappointment over goals abandoned (going to college, finding her lost son, working a job that didn't involve bodily fluids). She began doing the things she'd long shunned—doling out sexual favors for small rocks of crack, hardly bathing and sleeping, sometimes for nights on end, in parks or in condemned buildings filled with addicts. Huddled in filthy rooms cluttered with ratty mattresses, they'd get high and stare blankly for long periods. Talk was sparse, and no one exchanged names or where-are-you-from niceties. The point was to disappear. Sometimes other women would stumble in with deep, purple bruises or faces caked with blood. They most likely had been pushed out of a moving car or beaten by a pimp or a john, but those gathered in the ramshackle houses rarely asked. "A trick got hold of her," someone might remark before returning to dazed silence.

Some days she'd sit in the bushes alone and cry, thinking about how badly she wanted out but not knowing how she'd pull it off. "Can I live like a normal person?" she'd ask herself. "Would it be just an act?"

Then, on a morning in early December 2007, a new opportunity came in the form of an old routine. Diane was working a downtown street corner when two undercover vice cops pulled up in an unmarked car. She agreed to service them and was promptly handcuffed. She expected to spend up to two years in prison since she was already on probation, and under Texas' three-strikes law this was a felony. But prosecutors offered her six months in prison—including in-jail drug rehab—and probation. Her probation officer was part of the team starting a new specialty court for prostitutes, and Diane became the first participant. It was called STAR Court, which stands for strengthening, transition and recovery, and it would offer prostitutes the chance to continue drug treatment and attend counseling and job training classes under the supervision of a female judge. Fifteen months later, in September, Diane and four other former prostitutes became STAR Court's first graduates. Today, Diane—not her real name—is two years clean and sober, off probation and works as a supervisor at a Shriners call center.

Back in 2007, Dallas police Sergeant Louis Felini, a patrol supervisor, grew frustrated that his vice officers were arresting the same prostitutes over and over, only to see the women begin the cycle anew. He also wanted to use them to garner information on crimes committed at the truck stops they worked, places notorious for cargo theft, drug and human smuggling, as well as murders perpetrated by serial killers posing as truckers. Without something to offer the women in exchange, however, there was no incentive for them to cooperate.

"We spent eight months developing a complete exit strategy," says Felini, a stocky man who speaks with the blunt authority that comes with decades of law enforcement experience. "I'm not a tree hugger. I'm a crime fighter, a hardened 21-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department. As a rookie I believed, like everyone else, we should just arrest these women and put them in jail, but it doesn't work." Felini united 40 agencies to staff a command post off Interstate 20 in Dallas, a collection of trailers where police would bring arrested prostitutes and check their records, health staffers would screen them for STDs and a team of counselors would determine whether they needed in-patient drug treatment, psychiatric care or therapy. An on-site judge would work late into the night to review each misdemeanor case (those facing felony charges would go to jail and later have the option of attending treatment and counseling) and hand down an alternative sentence on the spot.

At first, the response from Felini's higher-ups was far from enthusiastic. "My commanders said, 'These women are too far gone. They don't want help,'" Felini says. "I said, 'Well, we'll do one operation and see.' The first night, 18 prostitutes walked up to us [at the command post]." The Prostitute Diversion Initiative became a monthly event, and soon after, Criminal District Judge Lana Myers got a state grant to preside over a felony court specifically tailored for prostitutes who wanted a different life and were willing to work for it. A misdemeanor court led by Criminal District Judge Peggy Hoffman followed. Two years after Felini launched the initiative and the courts got on board, 375 women have been arrested during operations or walked up to the mobile command post voluntarily; 200 were found eligible for immediate drug treatment or alternative sentences and roughly half opted to attend. Of those, 21 completed the initial 45-day treatment program and remain drug-free and out of prostitution. There's not yet definitive research showing the efforts work better than the traditional model, though Dr. Martha Felini, Sergeant Felini's wife and an epidemiology professor at the University of North Texas, points out that of the 10 women who finished the initial treatment the first year, 90 percent are clean and sober and off the streets.

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman