Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Dallas Response to Streets or Services by CAASE Intern

Fighting crime in an economic climate in which many states cannot afford to house their current prisoners can be challenging. As a result, many law enforcement agencies are seeking help from outside organizations to help reduce not only the number of people being sentenced to prison but also the number of those being arrested. One example of this growing trend can be found in Dallas, Texas.

Indeed, although Texas is the home of the largest prison system in the United States, the Dallas Police Department has pioneered a new response to prostitution offers people an alternative to prison. Rather than arresting and incarcerating people who are involved in the sex trade industry, Dallas police have developed the Prostitution Diversion Initiative (PDI). The PDI addresses the problem of prostitution through a new lens in which prostituted people are viewed as victims rather than criminals. By taking this perspective, the Dallas police officers are able to identify and address the needs of the people they encounter during prostitution sweeps and offer services that can ultimately help them to leave prostitution.

Developed in 2007, the PDI is a collaboration of law enforcement agencies, mental health and substance abuse agencies, medical practitioners, faith-based service providers, and other supportive services. Once a month, social service providers set up tables and chairs in vacant lots near truck stops where prostitution activity is believed to be heavy, and they are surrounded by four command trucks and a mobile health clinic. Police officers then sweep the area and individuals who are believed to be in prostitution are assessed by social service providers and offered STD testing and other medical health services in the mobile health clinic before setting foot into one of the mobile courtrooms. Individuals without felony warrants and who demonstrate a desire to leave prostitution are offered an opportunity to enter a rehabilitation program rather than prison. Once they complete the program, they receive help with services such as education, housing and childcare.

Even with this new innovative program, not everyone picked up by the police will qualify for services, and of those who do, only about half will opt to receive help. However, preliminary results are good. Ninety percent of those who had completed the initial recovery phase had not returned to prostitution (based on data published for the first year of operations). Compared to the 80% recidivism rate estimated for people who have been arrested and incarcerated for prostitution, the PDI appears to hold promising results for helping people to escape the sex trade industry.

In light of the promising results of the PDI, an unsettling question is raised: what happens when we begin to rely on the criminal justice system as a primary funding source for addressing social problems? Given the ever-tightening budget constraints of social service organizations, it seems likely that the day will soon come when people will be more likely to gain access to support services for help with issues such as housing, mental health, and substance abuse through their involvement with the criminal justice system than through their own desire to get help. Rather than putting law enforcement agencies in the role as gatekeepers to social services, wouldn’t it be far more cost-effective for state governments to redirect some of the money that now goes into funding law enforcement agencies’ collaboration with social service providers directly into the hands of the organizations that provide the services?

Such is the dream of End Demand, Illinois (EDI). The End Demand, Illinois campaign was launched in 2009 to transform the way Illinois responds to prostitution: by prioritizing the arrests of “johns” and offering relevant social services to prostituted people. While on the surface this may sound similar to the goals of the PDI, one major difference exists between the two. Whereas the PDI makes engagement with the criminal justice system a requirement for services, EDI seeks to ensure that services are made available to all survivors of prostitution, regardless of whether or not they have been identified as such by the criminal justice system. Though still in its infancy, End Demand, Illinois is already building a great deal of momentum that will hopefully spread beyond the borders of the state and into the rest of the country.