Dallas County may be on the verge of spurring a Texas-wide shift in the way the state deals with prostitutes. In 2007, the county began offering an ultimatum to prostitutes caught in stings: Go to jail, or get help. Encouraged by the success of the program, lawmakers are now close to taking it statewide.
The measure, which has passed through the state legislature and is awaiting Gov. Rick Perry’s signature, would require counties with populations 200,000 or more (which would include 22 of the state’s 254 counties) to set up prostitution prevention programs that are contingent upon receiving federal grants.
The idea is to stop the revolving door of prostitution and arrest — an ineffective system that punishes offenders but doesn’t keep them from reoffending. Dallas knows this all to well, as it is home to a number of other progressive court systems that focus on rehabilitation instead of retribution. They include a veteran’s court, drug courts, mental health programs and specialized juvenile courts. Many of which have lead to statewide reform.
Dallas began its program for prostitution, called PDI New Life, after 9/11. According to Mother Jones, the police department began to investigate truck stops as possible staging areas for terrorist attacks involving 16-wheelers. Instead of finding terrorists, they found 1,000 prostitutes servicing the 2,000 trucks that drive through the stops every day.
Louis Felini, the Dallas PD sergeant that cofounded the program, said that at first, they just started arresting everyone. Soon, they realized that the women were so caught up in the life that they couldn’t have done anything else if they wanted to. Many were addicted to drugs or had mental illnesses, and many were trafficked — caught up in a lifestyle they didn’t ask for and didn’t know how to leave. Felini said that the police “thought they’d die” if nothing was done to end the vicious cycle.
So, once a month the police department sets up a sting operation to catch as many prostitutes as possible. Once they are caught, they are brought to a makeshift intervention area — usually in a parking lot filled with police, health department officials, psychologists, and counselors for everything from PTSD to drug abuse. There, the prostitutes are told they have a choice. They can go to jail, or they can talk to someone.
If the prostitutes choose the latter, they are offered 45 days of live-in treatment that includes help with substance abuse, mental health issues, trauma, housing and job training. Women who aren’t introduced to the program during monthly stings can be put in the program when they are brought to jail.
Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire of Hillsboro introduced the bill to bring the program statewide in early February.
"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 said last year. "By locking them up, we're not fixing the problem—we're just spending a lot of money incarcerating them, warehousing them."
If the bill goes statewide, Texas will be the first state to enact such a large-scale alternative solution to prostitution. Under the bill, if women successfully complete the program, their records could be wiped clean — a relief for women who find it difficult to move on from their past because of botched records.
And in a state where partisan politics is almost a rule, it is telling that this bill has bipartisan support. Both the liberal Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation have praised the bill and the program that sparked it.
“The results have been pretty good overall, especially when you compare them to the revolving door process of prostitution in the state jail and county jails,” Marc Levin, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, told the Dallas Morning News. “This program gets to the underlying issues in these women’s lives.”
Getting at those issues has save the state a lot of money, and a lot of time. It costs $18,538 to house a convict in Texas for one year, but putting a prostitute through the rehabilitation program only costs $4,300. The success of the program also speaks for itself. Mother Jones reports that after three years, there was a 60% drop in the amount of prostitution in truck stops around the city; and that in 2011, 48% of those who completed the program had not been rearrested for prostitution.
While the program is drawing national praise, it does have it’s critics — especially in counties that have comparatively low numbers of prostitution cases.
“Not all counties over 200,000 population are the same with the same level of problems in every category,” Denton County Judge Mary Horn told the Dallas Morning News. “Good ideas should be shared and facilitated by the state — not mandated.”
For counties where prostitution numbers aren’t high, this program could be expensive. The bill does allow the program to collect up to $1,000 in fees from its participants, which would offset some of the cost, and would only be enforced if counties were given federal grant money. Still, counties like Collin County might face high costs to be in compliance with the law.
While the law may not be perfect, it allows hope for women who otherwise may see no way out of prostitution. Perry has not commented on the bill, but his history suggests he may be in favor of the program. During the 2011 legislative session, he signed into law regulations for first-offender prostitution prevention initiatives that allow counties to start their own programs. Signing this law would take prevention and treatment a step further.