Prostitution: A Community Solution Alternative

By Nelson, William F. | Corrections Today, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Prostitution: A Community Solution Alternative


Nelson, William F., Corrections Today


One of the more perplexing challenges within the criminal justice system is dealing with prostitution. Rarely is it behavior that reaches the felony level, yet it is one of the more common "revolving door" offenses in most major metropolitan areas. Using an earlier landmark study on criminal justice costs for prostitution, (1) The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., estimated that in Chicago, the total cost for each prostitution arrest was $1,554 in 2001, or a system total of $9,089,252. (2)

However, criminal justice costs alone do not tell the whole story. In a 1994 study of health consequences of prostitution, it was found that women engaged in a variety of prostitution activities, including at strip clubs, in the street, at crack houses and through escort services. The study also found that prostitution had a profound impact on the women's personal health and that of their children. (3) There also are the added burdens to welfare, child welfare, and neighborhoods and communities, which experience more costs and deterioration in quality of life. Clearly, the impact of prostitution is far-reaching. Yet, the burden of addressing and hopefully mitigating the problem rests primarily with the criminal justice system.

Since 1984, Volunteers of America-Minnesota has managed a jail/workhouse for women who are committed for periods of up to one year. The institution provides services primarily for Ramsey County (St. Paul). In 1998, the jail administration conducted an informal study of inmates who had been repetitively committed for engaging in prostitution. The number of commitments ranged from four to 14 among 12 inmates. The cost implications were startling. Each inmate had cumulatively served four to six years of jail time through repetitive commitments for prostitution. At an average per diem jail cost of $55, this represented accumulated costs of $80,000 to $120,000, with a likelihood of additional costs in the future. Other facts gleaned from the study included chemical addiction in virtually 100 percent of the cases (with repeated and failed attempts at conventional chemical dependency treatment), prior history of sexual abuse and a desire to get out of prostitution. With these facts, Volunteers of America began marketing the idea of developing a residential recovery center to serve as a court diversion option or a voluntary post-release option. Without exception, virtually every agency, community group, faith community member and governmental agency supported the concept. Support was sufficient to attract a grant from the 1999 session of the Minnesota Legislature for a two-year pilot project. The Women's Recovery Center opened with 12 beds in February 2000.

Program Design

Once funding was established, the task of developing an effective program design was begun, first through a search of the professional literature for best practices. Much had been documented about public policy, effects of prostitution on women, pro and con regarding legalization, and academic works on causation. However, there was no road map to guide an effective design for treatment. The next and perhaps most obvious source for answers was directed toward women who had been in prostitution but had successfully exited. Through several meetings with a small panel of former prostitutes, the answers began to emerge. Three program ingredients were concluded as essential: gender-specific chemical dependency treatment, mental health treatment with emphasis on sexual trauma, and a cognitive/teaching program of expanded life choices.

Chemical Dependency Treatment

During the time of planning, new thinking was beginning to emerge, especially regarding treatment for chemically dependent women. Prominent in this thinking was the influence of the Wellesley College Stone Center (4) and the work of Stephanie Covington and her publication Helping Women Recover. (5) Criminal justice professionals have long known that the female offender often engages in a relationship with a male pimp or "boyfriend" or engages in crime generally with male leadership.

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