Officials Take a New Tack Trying to Stop Prostitution; More Law Enforcers Treat It as Human Trafficking, Target Pimps, Johns

Article excerpt

CICERO, Ill. * Officers in the Chicago area call it a "track," a stretch of street known for its steady sex trade.

Women in tight, scanty clothing stand in high heels on street corners along an industrial strip in suburban Cicero. Customers, most of them men, slow their cars and roll down a window.

"How much?" they ask.

Some might see these interludes as exchanges between consenting adults, or at the very least, consenting criminals, if the prostitute is, indeed, an adult and seemingly free to come and go as she pleases. They may call it a victimless crime, seeing domestic prostitution as something very different from human sex trafficking with its cross-border abductions and brutal coercion a scourge that's come to the forefront of news in recent years.

But are they so different, after all? Increasingly, experts in the field are saying no, and applying the label "human trafficking" to homegrown prostitution. And now more lawmakers, police and prosecutors across the country are starting to shift their view on this, too. Increasingly, they are focusing on arresting traffickers and customers (pimps and johns, as it were) and on getting help for prostitutes.

"It's almost similar to a domestic violence issue," says Michael Anton, commander of the Cook County Sheriff's vice unit, based in the Chicago. "A lot of (people) say, 'Well, they can just get out.'

"Well, it's not that easy."

As of this year, Illinois became one of several states in which prostitution is no longer a felony. It's also one of a growing number where a minor cannot be charged with prostitution, even as a misdemeanor. Meanwhile, prosecutors in Cook County, which includes Chicago, have set up a human trafficking unit and, in recent years, have been using new state laws to put more traffickers in jail.

'JOHNS' ARE TARGETED

Cook County Sheriff's police also run regular sting operations to ticket customers who proposition undercover female police officers or who use popular escort websites. The johns must pay a fine. Police also impound their cars.

"Dear John," read billboards the department has posted near various tracks, "If You're Here To Solicit Sex, It Could Cost You $2,150. We're Teaming Up To Bust You."

The money funds a rehabilitation program for prostitutes, and Anton says his vice unit officers have never arrested the same customer twice.

"I'm not saying we've stopped it," he says. …