Victims, Not Criminals

By Sara Rubin
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In Dallas County, prostitutes move from truck stop to truck stop along the I-20 corridor, with occasional detours to jail. Most of these women suffer from drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness, and sexually transmitted infections. Most have been sexually or physically abused. And when they're released from jail, with no ongoing access to drug rehab or job training programs, the truck stops seem the most logical place to return.
 
By 2007, Dallas vice officers had grown tired of arresting the same women again and again. So they launched the Prostitution Diversion Initiative, a program that approached prostitutes as victims rather than criminals, offering treatment and support to women in need. For prostitutes with prior felony convictions, the county created STAR Court--the acronym stands for Strengthening, Transition, and Recovery. Twelve women have graduated successfully from the program and 30 more are currently participating. Meanwhile, offenses at truck stops have dropped 39 percent since the program began.

Justice Lana Myers presided over STAR Court from its opening in October 2007 until December 2009, when she was appointed to the 5th District Court of Appeals of Texas. She spoke with The Atlantic about overcoming initial skepticism to make the Prostitute Diversion Initiative a success.


Justice Lana MyersHow did the idea for STAR Court come about?

The Dallas police department gathered a group of county leaders to talk about ideas for prostitution diversion. I sat around the table with veteran Dallas police officers, who had dealt with prostitutes for many years, arresting them, putting them in jail, then seeing them back out on the streets. It wasn't working and they knew there had to be a better way.

So they set up command posts in the county--starting with truck stops, where they were having the most problems with prostitution.  It only made sense for the justice system to continue with what the police were doing, because if we didn't do something at the court level, then the police would be dealing with these women over and over again like they had in the past. So with our Dallas county probation department and a state grant, I helped put STAR Court in place.

Was there any resistance when the program started?

At first some people were saying, "Oh they're holding 'ho court.'" But I think now they see that it's making a difference and they take it seriously.

What methods does STAR Court use to help lift women out of their circumstances, and how are they different from what was happening before?

The very first time that I met with these women, I was on the bench, in my robe. The first group just looked at me like, "One more thing to do, this isn't going to work. I've never been able to do probation, so why would she think I could do probation now?" I knew I was going to have to relate in a different way.

So the next time I met with them, I just took my robe off and came down off the bench and talked with them. Their arms were no longer crossed, and we were actually talking--they were opening up. So that's how we met, every Monday afternoon in my courtroom, and it was really just sharing.

Putting them in jail was not the answer, because they could do jail time standing on their heads; these women had done jail time many, many times. So I tried to be creative, to try to get them to think about why they got into this business in the first place and what they could do to get themselves out of it. We had them go to computer classes, to get job skills. Most of them have substance abuse problems or mental illness, so we got them into treatment.

They are a great support for each other, too, and they hold each other accountable. It's the drug court model, where if one person starts talking nonsense and giving all kinds of excuses for why she can't do this or that, the others will hold them accountable in front of everybody else. So they do my work for me.

Are there certain traits or qualifications that the presiding judge needs?

I think that it's helpful to have a woman judge presiding over the program, because the men in their lives have been abusive. Some of the women have told me that they are inspired by having a strong woman in front of them. When I was appointed to the 6th District Court of Appeals, some of the women came to the ceremony. And you need trust. When I would tell women in STAR Court something and then follow through, and they knew that I wasn't just trying to put them in jail.

What these women need is not the traditional role of the judge, but a gentle hand. STAR Court is not traditional. We did a lot of hugging. We sang and we clapped, and I told these women often how much I loved them. Most of them have never really had anyone who is in the court system, in authority, care that much about them. And I believe that's what keeps them coming back to court and attending their counseling sessions and complying with the conditions of probation.

It sounds like the effectiveness of the Prostitution Diversion Initiative has been due partly to collaboration between the justice system and law enforcement. Who else has to be involved to make the program effective?

It takes everybody, and it went a whole lot better I had anticipated. Even one of our county commissioners got on board and formed a task force in the county. The Dallas County Health Department is testing the women for STDs, right there on the spot at the police command posts. A public defender was working with these women in STAR Court. The Dallas police are incredible people with great big hearts and a real desire to see these women be everything that they should be.

How could the Dallas program expand?

Ideally, in the future there would be one place where the prostitutes--I hate to call them prostitutes, because so many of them are not doing that anymore--would live while on probation, and we'd bring the counselors to them. They would be involved in a legitimate business there, which would support the organization itself. There is one such program in Nashville, and it's amazing. We would like to take what they're learned and do the very same thing here in Dallas. We had the first national prostitution diversion conference here in Dallas County, with interest from all over.

Traditionally, there's been hesitation to invest time and money into prostitution diversion initiatives; people in law enforcement will tell you that they just haven't had much success with keeping these women on any type of probation program. It takes a lot of people and a lot of caring.

What would you recommend to other cities considering similar diversion initiatives?

We didn't just accept everyone into the program. We took women who we felt really wanted to change. They are only there because they've said, "I don't want to do this anymore. I need help and I don't know how to do it myself." The key is to take women who really desire to change and are not just saying it because it's a ticket out of jail. The strength of the program is in bringing all those women together so they can share and hold each other accountable, and it really works.

What have you learned about prostitution and enforcement since presiding over STAR Court?

When I first started working with these women, I got discouraged. Recovery doesn't happen in a day, so women who had gotten pretty far along would relapse. But then I said, "I'm just going to pick them back up and start over."

It's been just amazing to watch these women--some of who had been prostituting for 20 years--get a legitimate job and stay clean and sober. One of the women recently went to talk to state legislators about more funding for this program. Some of the things that I would tell them about helped me, too, while I was campaigning for reelection. Things like, "Don't get distracted, stay on track, just concentrate on believing that you can do this." I've been blessed to be a part of STAR court.

Image credit: David McNew/Getty Images

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/personal/archive/2010/05/victims-not-criminals/57187/