A New Dawn: Philly Court Uses Compassion to Fight Prostitution

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 10 | Posted Aug. 3, 2010

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Photo by Brad Gellman

Today is not the first time Kristen Simmons (not her real name) stands before a judge in Philadelphia’s criminal court. In the 26 years she’s been working on and off as a prostitute, she has been arrested 16 times and has served four stints in jail.

Nothing has come easy for the 47-year-old, 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.

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Comments 1 - 10 of 10
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1. Hiroader said... on Aug 4, 2010 at 08:41AM

“The thing about "Compassion"..., It cost tax payers money,.. In 26 years , arrested 16 times ...has served 4 stints in jail... At 47-years old... After She’s 10 months sober she recieved a courtroom round of applause... {Are we on "PUNKED" tv here}... Where's Ashton Kutcher?... (Where'd I put that "duct tape" at?)... A 47 yr old prostitute retirement plan "Get sober" (smh)....

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2. Bella said... on Aug 4, 2010 at 09:39AM

“I am glad this women finally cleanned up. However most of us Mature escorts are not addicts, we are single mom's with college aged kids, who can't support ourselves by working at walmart, and rather not deal with an abusive spouse.
WHy are the JOHNS never thrown in jail. It is ironic to think these women would stop when they have no services, 80% of them where sexual abused as kids, and most where pimped out as kids and yes before you know it they are in their 40's, and have supported there kids, without welfare.
Until we do not prosecute consenting adults in private, then their is no comapssion. yes street hookers on drugs do need to clean up, by when LE STALKS US ONLINE, it becomes a WITCH HUNT> Pimps 25 to life, and Johns should pay fines not to the county court but to the vicitms and do communtiy service for womens shelters. The women should get services, they are victims whtehr they are 17 or 44. and have to take a class on the effects on the sex worker.”

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3. sexxxy_escort said... on Aug 4, 2010 at 11:35AM

“I agree with Bella. This article is good in that it addresse the problems with "street walkers" but most sex workers advertise on the interenet and are clean and college-educated. Sex work shouldn't be a crime in general, but getting it off the streets and helping those who are addicted to drugs and using sex work to support their habit should be addressed and ended. And if everyone who took money or other items (jewelry, houses, cars, etc.) in exchange for sex were to be prosecuted, then ther would be a lot of Main Line housewives sitting in jail right now.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Aug 4, 2010 at 12:00PM

“Wow, the article shows how situations are deeper than one may have thought. This is an excellent solution, althought there may be better, but it is a great step. Maybe others will be inspired to find "out of normal" solutions. Excellent to read.”

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5. Ray said... on Aug 4, 2010 at 12:09PM

“Great article! Interesting this is coming from a paper which accepts advertising from prostitutes and massage parlors, the latter are known by law enforcement as engaging in sexual slavery.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Aug 4, 2010 at 06:23PM

“I'd like to see an article following up this one but on the online escorting girls like those on BestGFE. They are the same girls but with a computer.”

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7. pete said... on Aug 4, 2010 at 10:40PM

“Politically I am a supporter of martial law but
with this issue no amount of law and order
or prison time for johns and janes will change
the fact that there are ugly men like myself
who will not get laid without prostitutes. I once
used the services of brothels which are
known hubs for sex slaves because I don't
have what it takes to be in a real relationship
with a woman. Like the ,"drug", problem we
need legalization and strict regulation of
brothels. It can be like going to the chiropractor
for an ,"adjustment". Clients of sex workers
are suffering a psychological hell because of
this need for sexual release, Thankfully I am
schizophrenic so my libido is almost gone.
Some sex workers are consensually delivering
a service that constitutes a saving mercy for
men who cannot be in relationships.”

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8. Pointer Obvious said... on Aug 20, 2010 at 08:41PM

“All the insight of this article is cancelled out by your week later celebration of a Chinatown "handjob" from the point of view of someone who couldn't articulate their way out of paperbag.”

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9. Joni said... on Mar 28, 2012 at 02:09PM

“I never had any record in my life till I became involved in prostitution at the age of 50. I couldn't get a job, my Mother was losing her house, I started dating then it just happened. At the time I was in it, I wasn't even thinking I was doing anything wrong. I was arrested the 1st time in a hotel room when my client turned out to be a Detective. They told me they were actually looking for pimps and didn't care about independent escorts. Not to worry. Well I was scared after this so deceided to just do it out of my home. Several months later 1 of my clients came to my home and turned out to be a under cover cop. My house was surrounded with cops with guns. They held guns to my Mother's,StepBrother's head and mine. It was horrible. That was 8 years ago and I'm still paying for it. The second arrest I was indicted with 2 felonies. My life seems over. If the first arrest was stricter and made me aware of what trouble I would be in I wouldn't have continued. It's to latenow”

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10. reader person said... on Aug 1, 2012 at 01:06PM

“I find the photos accompanying this article misleading and offensive. Why didn't Philadelphia Weekly show us how real, street-walking sex workers look? If it's possible to inappropriately sexualize prostitutes, this article did it. Congratulations. What a coup.
That said, thank you for the detailed narratives on women's experiences with the Dawn Project. I feel like Philadelphia is a city that tries really hard; often, its attempts are misguided, but I don't think Dawn's Court is one of those cases.”


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