The Way Dallas Deals with Prostitutes Could Become a Model for the State

In 2007, Dallas County came to the realization that throwing hookers in jail, as was the standard practice, was an expensive and not-very-effective way of addressing prostitution. So police, courts, and health providers teamed up to develop the Prostitution Diversion Initiative, a program aimed at treating women rather than punishing them as criminals.

During the program's first four years, police contacted 728 prostitutes, about a quarter of whom were both eligible and opted to enroll in residential treatment. About half of those made it out of the program and weren't rearrested for prostitution, saving an estimated $62,000 in jail and court costs, according to the initiative's most recent annual report.

It's a surprisingly progressive program, funding for which commissioners recently renewed despite John Wiley Price's odd reference to men who pay for sex as "sponsors." But it hasn't caught on in the rest of the state.

It may soon have to. Texas Senate Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, filed a bill yesterday that would make prostitution diversion programs like Dallas' mandatory for counties with 200,000 or more residents.

Details would be left up to local governments, but the bill outlines the basic elements: a specialty prostitution court with the authority to dismiss criminal prostitution charges upon completion of a treatment program.

"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," Whitmire told the Austin American-Statesman in August. "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."

That quote was in reference to Whitmire's push to repeal the 2001 law that made third-offense prostitution a state jail felony, but it applies equally well here.

And while neither changing the criminal classification of prostitution or mandating treatment programs will end prostitution, they should help. And they're certainly more rational than the status quo.

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