Prostitutes choose jail or rehab

Dallas police are treating sex workers as victims. Will it work?

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published January 5, 2010 7:30PM (EST)

A woman is arrested for prostitution and given a choice: Jail or rehab -- take your pick. It sounds like a far-fetched scenario -- especially in the United States, where decriminalization attempts have been resisted -- but it's one that is playing out right now in Dallas. Call it a sex worker's get out of jail drug-free card.

Once a month, police round up prostitutes at local truck stops and take them to nearby "mobile command units" in the form of 18-wheeler trucks, the Associated Press reports. They are pressed for vital intel (for example, whether any local pimps are trafficking underage girls) before undergoing a social services screening and being offered various medical tests and treatment. Then it's off to a courtroom-on-wheels.

"If the women have no felony warrants and seem sincere, the judge gives them the opportunity to avoid jail and enter rehab," according to the AP. "After 45 days of inpatient counseling, they receive help with education, child care and housing." There is no doubt these women are desperately in need of the help: The truck stops are the "bottom rung of prostitution," according to Dallas police Sgt. Louis Felini. "They are trading sex for survival needs: food, a place to sleep," he says. Not to mention, the vast majority are users, crack being the drug of choice.

The program has been hailed as a success and the city's National Prostitution Diversion conference in November drew hundreds of law enforcement officials from across the U.S. and Canada. But the stats show the extent of the challenge ahead: Just half of the 375 women rounded up under the program have chosen the rehab option and only 21 have left sex work altogether. 

It's hard not to notice the philosophical dissonance here. The program's aim is to "treat prostitutes as sex crime victims" -- but, if they're victims, why do they face jail time? Are they only victims if they're drug-addicted? Why is an addict who is uninterested in rehab not a victim? As always, I'm reminded of the fundamental inconsistency in our attempts to "solve" the issue of prostitution; I suspect that problem has to be addressed before any attempt at helping sex workers can be heralded as a true success.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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