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Report urges reduced punishment for prostitution

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by Maurice Chammah

AUSTIN (THE TEXAS TRIBUNE) - A new report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition argues that reducing penalties for prostitution and sending more defendants to diversion programs would decrease the practice and save the state money.

Advocates and some lawmakers say that prostitution is often a sign of victimization, and that it should be treated that way by the criminal justice system. "These women don't belong in prison because they've been victims of everything you can think of," said Ana Yáñez-Correa, who authored the report and is executive director of the coalition.

The report aims to bolster efforts to pass House Bill 2801, by state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, which would delete a part of state law that makes repeated prostitution a felony. Instead, it would allow courts to send those charged with prostitution to pretrial diversion and intervention programs. Such programs, under the bill, would involve at least 100 hours of "instruction, counseling, or treatment concerning sexual abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, mental health, or substance abuse."

"Repeatedly locking up these women without giving them any help is failing them, failing taxpayers and simply moving the problem from one street corner to another," Johnson said in a statement.

Prostitution has been increasingly criminalized around the country since World War II, when lawmakers were worried about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among soldiers, according to the report. The report also notes that a 2001 law meant to clean up truck stops made Texas the only state where prostitution can bring a felony charge after three misdemeanor convictions.

As of last July, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported that 350 people were in prison for prostitution, mostly from Dallas and Houston. 

Some lawmakers, including Johnson and state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, have argued that keeping prostitutes out of prison would save the state money. According to figures from the Legislative Budget Board, in 2012 it cost roughly $15,600 per year to keep an inmate in a state jail ($42.90 per day), where most people convicted of prostitution are housed. The report estimated that the state would spend just $4,300 on each person involved in community-based programs like those envisioned in the bill.

Yáñez-Correa said she hoped passage of the bill would encourage the development of more programs like the Prostitution Diversion Initiative, founded in 2007 in Dallas. It provides resources like food and clothing to women detained for prostitution and puts them through a 45-day treatment program.  The program, spearheaded by the Dallas Police Department, found that more than half of participants had mental health problems and more than a third had attempted suicide.

Lawmakers will hear discussion of the bill during a committee meeting Tuesday. It is one of several proposals that aim to treat prostitutes as victims rather than criminals. Bills by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, aim to create a diversion program for juveniles convicted of prostitution, extend funding for the Texas attorney general's office to prosecute sex traffickers, and allow victims of trafficking to sue trafficking businesses and the publishers of advertisements that lead to victimization.

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