Fighting Prostitution Through Compassion

This isn't the first time Kristen Simmons (not her real name) has stood before a judge in Philadelphia's criminal court. In the 26 years she's worked as a prostitute, she's been arrested 16 times and served four stints in jail.

Nothing has come easy for the 47-year-old (not pictured), who says she would "constantly relapse" when it came to her addiction to cocaine, crack, crystal meth-and life on the streets.

Still, Kristen radiates with pride when attorney Mary DeFusco, of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, tells her it's time to address the court. Clad in a plain, white T-shirt and denim skirt, she faces a tough-talking, no-nonsense Judge Lydia Kirkland, who says she has no problem sentencing repeat-offender prostitutes to SCI-Muncy, a women's prison in upstate Lycoming County, Pa. "There's no escaping Muncy," she'll say. "I'm going to make sure they have a jumpsuit your size."

But Kristen has good news to report: She's 10 months sober, off the streets and living in a residential facility. She volunteers on the community council at her treatment center. Soon, she says she wants to help women still zigzagging between turning tricks and copping highs on the street.

Instead of another jail sentence, Kristen receives a round of applause.

"Congratulations," says a smiling Kirkland as she eyeballs Kristen for a few seconds before nodding approvingly and adding, "You look so good."

"Ms. [Simmons] is on Stage III of Project Dawn Court," DeFusco says, handing Kristen a certificate and giving her a tight hug. Everyone in the courtroom claps.

Project Dawn Court is Philadelphia's newest problem-solving court, designed for women with repeat prostitution offenses. The first of its kind in the country, it's modeled on the nationally lauded Philadelphia Treatment Court, established in 1997 to reduce both drug possession recidivism rates and the cost of jailing drug addicts by providing rehabilitative services under close court supervision.

Like Philly's Mental Health and Treatment problem-solving courts, the goal of Dawn's Court is three-fold: connect nonviolent repeat offenders with therapeutic and re-entry services; make the community safer by reducing recidivism of a particular crime; and lessen the financial burden of taxpayers paying to keep minor offenders in jail.

"In county prison, if you eliminate violent offenders, the second single largest block of women at the prison are in on prostitution and prostitution-related events," says DeFusco, who led the way getting Project Dawn Court rolling with the collaboration of many people at various agencies (The Defender's Association; District Attorney's Office; The Philadelphia Adult Probation and Parole Department). "The way the city budgets it, that's $95.90 a day per inmate." By DeFusco's estimate, the city wastes almost $10,000 a day housing prostitutes in jail-even more if the inmate has kids who must be placed in foster care. DeFusco calls this a no-brainer.

"The DAs don't want to see these women in jail. The judges don't want to see them in jail. They just want them to stop [prostitution]," says DeFusco. "[We] want them to get help, so they're able to stop because the women themselves want to stop."

Though prostitution is technically one of the lowest-rated crimes, offenders serve the highest percentage of their maximum sentence than any other type of inmate other than lifers. DeFusco says she's seen prostitutes serve 13 months of a 12-month maximum sentence. "It's completely crazy," she says.

DeFusco calls traditional criminal justice "one size fits all." And because 10 times as many men are in prison than women, that one size is "the male mode."

"Criminal justice has one view of these women. First it's like, ‘Here's a nuisance crime, pay a fine and we'll make this case go away.' Then they found [the same women] keep coming back, so it's almost like they're saying, ‘We don't mind you having sex for money, we mind you getting arrested for it,' because they just raise the fine."

DeFusco says "we've got to give [offenders] something other than the prison and the punishment that they have come to expect, because we know by now that prison does not work if we want to change behavior."

With so little formal research on the lives of street prostitutes in the U.S., DeFusco's a relative expert. Her perspective is culled from 28 years as a public defender, eight years working directly with prostitutes in municipal courts and lessons learned while helping establish and working with Treatment Court and Dawn's Place-a refuge for prostitutes she co-founded in 2008.

From those experiences, DeFusco has drawn two main conclusions that Project Dawn Court is designed to address.

The first: the "backward" assumption that prostitutes start out as drug addicts. In DeFusco's experience, the reverse is true.

But because the courts echo the cultural assumption, there was no intervention for women struggling to exit commercial sex work before Project Dawn Court. Instead, there was only fines, jail or drug rehab-which in DeFusco's view, is treating a symptom of the problem and not the problem itself.

DeFusco offers a telling example. She recalls a young girl just out of high school who she recruited for the program back in January. Without Project Dawn Court in place, the system did the only thing it knew to do.

"They sent her to a drug rehab," says DeFusco. "She didn't have a drug problem."

Before long, the girl fled the facility and slipped back into the ether.

"By the time we see her again, they'd know what to do with her," says DeFusco. "Because by then, she'll have a drug problem."

DeFusco says that mindset puts "the cart before the horse."

Project Dawn Court coordinator Laura Hokenson interviews women for the program, and confirms that this pattern is reflected in the records of candidates.

"A lot of women are going into prostitution without these substance abuse problems, then developing them, so usually we'll see possession of controlled substances [on their record] but usually later," she says. Of the 20 or so women Hokenson has interviewed so far, she says that's the case for all of them.

"You get women who got stoned in high school, but none that were full-blown addicts before they get into prostitution and that's what's crazy," says Hokenson, who says she was surprised by the discovery. "It becomes a whole convoluted cycle with the drugs. It's the only way of escaping the prostitution they then do to fund their drug habit."

Project Dawn Court is customized for each woman; her program is based on the results of the mandatory Forensic Intensive Recovery (FIR) evaluation-which determines treatment providers. Because the paperwork to order a FIR can take up to six weeks to process, women who enter the program sometimes sit in jail longer than they would have if they didn't join Project Dawn Court.

The program is rigorous. It requires a commitment to at least three months of in-house therapy and, as necessary, counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, childhood sexual abuse, drug addiction, parenting classes, tutoring prep for the GED, job training and therapy specifically designed to address the repercussions of the commercial sex business.

"I don't want to say prostitutes anonymous, but they're specifically working on the exploitation," Hokenson says.

Once a woman enrolls in Project Dawn Court, her plea is held in abeyance while she undergoes the program. If a woman fails, she faces an escalating series of sanctions that can include writing an essay or sitting in the juror's box in a courtroom listening to prostitution cases all day. Messing up means slipping back to the beginning of that phase.

There are four phases to the program: the first lasts 30 days, the second lasts 90 days, and the third and fourth are 120 days each. At the successful completion of each phase, a woman receives a certificate and applause.

"For some of these women, it's the first round of applause they've ever had in their lives," says DeFusco.

Women usually live at a residential facility during Phases I and II. Then, like Kristen, they return home during III and IV. Throughout, they appear in court monthly to update Kirkland. If the woman fails out entirely-when the judge is sick of giving her chances-she goes to jail.

At graduation out of the program, possible after one solid year, their last case is formally dismissed with prejudice.

It's a system DeFusco refers to as "the carrot and the stick."

Today is Kristen's sixth appearance in the Project Dawn Court program. Her will has stayed strong since she signed up. After all, she learned about the program while sitting behind bars-then stayed an extra month just for the opportunity to get clean.

"I said you know what? I want to do it. I had no chance. I need the help." She adds: "I've been running from this thing for years, not wanting to look inside myself. I was scared to."

Of the dozen women enrolled so far, she's at the head of her class. [...]

For Kristen to start over, to resist the familiar rhythm of life in the street, she has to work hard. She says it's not just about staying off drugs; it's about dealing with all of it. She says she shares everything in therapy now, she doesn't hold back.

"I got a lot of guilt, you know?"

Though she's said that she split her parents' house and "never looked back," that's not entirely true.

Kristen's parents died a few years ago. She cries as she talks about them dying. She says though she was in jail at the time, she was able to say good-bye to her mother on the phone. She visited her father on his deathbed.

"I said, ‘Daddy, I love you, I forgive you. I know it [the abuse] was the alcoholism.'"

He died the next day. "I feel like they waited for me," she says.

Kristen says she finally understands that she can't outrun the shame, no matter how many cars she hops in and out of, no matter how high she gets.

"My whole life, that's the only thing I knew, from the age of 14," she says. "You look for love in all the wrong places and you just get caught up."

Kristen says she needs to help others in order to feel important. She helped get her son off heroine. She dreams of teaching handicapped kids and looks forward to doing outreach next.

She wants very badly to break the cycle.

"I looked at myself and realized this ain't the life I want to live," she says. "I got a grandson … and I don't want to live that life no more."

Kristen's next appearance for Project Dawn Court is at the end of August. At that point, she'll have been working the program for 120 days, with 240 more go to become the first graduate.

"You can't ever give up on anybody," she says. "Because nobody gave up on me. And here I am … It's beyond my wildest dreams."

This article originally appeared (in longer form) at the Philadelphia Weekly. Republished with permission.

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