Stung by a report ranking Baltimore No. 1 in the nation for its rate of syphilis and gonorrhea, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke vowed yesterday to crack down on the city's prostitution problem, which he sees as a leading cause in the spread of venereal diseases.
Next year, Schmoke plans to publish in community publications and Baltimore's major newspapers the names and pictures of convicted "johns," men who hire prostitutes. In addition to publishing the names and pictures in newspapers, the mayor said he might show them to all media during his weekly news conferences.
Schmoke also called for legislation that would allow authorities to seize the johns' cars when they are arrested.
The mayor's proposals come on the heels of a national report this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed Baltimore's syphilis rate is more than 30 times the national average and its gonorrhea rate nine times the average.
Then on "The Tonight Show" Wednesday, host Jay Leno launched into a series of wisecracks about Baltimore's syphilis and gonorrhea rates. Leno showed a picture of a fictitious billboard on Interstate 95 that read: "Welcome to Baltimore, please put on your condom now."
He went on to say that while New York is the city that never sleeps, Baltimore is where no one "sleeps alone."
Schmoke will appear on "The Tonight Show" this evening via satellite to talk about Baltimore's venereal disease problem.
"It's true that Baltimore City leads the nation in this high rate of syphilis and gonorrhea," Schmoke said during his weekly press conference yesterday. "This is one area where I don't want to continue to be No. 1."
City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III declined to comment on the mayor's proposal yesterday, saying he had to review the constitutional issues involved in publishing the names and pictures of convicted johns and seizing vehicles.
The idea of publishing the names of johns is not new, and some local community newspapers such as South Baltimore Guide do so.
John S. Carroll, The Sun's executive editor, said he would have to review the mayor's proposal before deciding whether to publish the johns' names. "We'll take a look at it," he said.
Barry Baker, of the city police department's Southern District, said he believes the mayor's proposal can work as a strong deterrent, if the program is aggressively maintained.
"The feeling here is the embarrassment will deter," said Baker, who regularly combats prostitution problems. Officers in his district arrest more than 600 prostitutes and 200 johns a year. BTC "But it isn't something you do today and forget tomorrow. It's something you make a permanent fixture."
The mayor's proposal will likely come under fire tonight when he faces Leno, who is known for his unrelenting comedic assaults on government officials.
Schmoke said he simply plans to defend the city's record in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, with the understanding that Leno will pepper the interview with his wry sense of humor.
Schmoke, telling jokes with an almost giddy laugh, appears to be ready for Leno's attack: "I look forward to responding to his comments about our city. Last night he tried to be complimentary to say Baltimore has great crabs."
Jokes aside, Schmoke said he plans to make clear to Leno and the nation that Baltimore has scored significant victories in its effort to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner, said the number of gonorrhea cases dropped from 12,800 in 1991 to 6,700 in 1997. And the number of syphilis cases is at 500, which is 170 below last year's total.
He said the city has hired more clinicians to test and treat people for venereal diseases, to provide educational programs and to set up treatment laboratories in the city detention centers, where venereal disease has run high.
Beilenson said he believes that targeting the prostitutes and their johns should lead to further declines in the rate of sexually transmitted diseases.
Pub Date: 12/11/98