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.
Want to know how much sex with a teenager costs? Just ask Mimi. It cost her everything. Two years ago this month, I wrote a cover story that profiled the struggles of the 20-year-old from New Jersey who was two months into recovery after spending five grueling years in street-level prostitution, where the only so-called winners are pimps who earn big bucks off the backs of women and girls.
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