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Prostitutes could find help, not jail time

The Baltimore Sun

The small woman stood before the judge with her head hung so low that her chin nearly touched her chest.

She had been charged with prostitution, but instead of jail time Judge Ann O'Regan Keary of the District of Columbia's Superior Court ordered her to a halfway house where she would receive counseling and other services. If the woman sticks with the rehabilitation plan, the charge would not appear on her record and she could avoid jail time.

"I'd like to have us address her situation as soon as possible," said Keary, who presides over one of Washington's two community courts, one of which handles quality-of-life crimes and traffic citations; the other, prostitution, simple assault and some drug cases.

Sitting in the courtroom - absorbing the scene - was a group from Baltimore made up of members of the state's attorney's office, advocacy groups and neighborhood associations. The group is working to create a similar court in the city, but for starters they would like to focus strictly on women involved in prostitution.

Baltimore's court system handles roughly 1,200 prostitution cases a year, not including those involving men charged with solicitation, according to the city state's attorney's office. Some of those cases involve repeat offenders, women who cycle through the system several times a year, in large part due to drug addiction and past physical and psychological trauma, according to court officials and advocates.

They say that if women involved in prostitution received drug treatment, counseling and job training instead of jail time, they might be able to leave the street. And although the prostitution court concept is still in the early planning phase, and funding is scarce, it is gaining support.

"The prostitution problem in our city is severe," said Judge Keith E. Mathews, chief of the city's District Court. He has given tentative approval to freeing up one courtroom one day a week to hear such cases but still needs reassurance that there would be adequate resources to help women. "It is really a quality-of-life problem for neighborhoods - they are very concerned about it," Mathews said. "And your heart goes out to the women who get caught up in it, 99 percent because they are drug addicts."

Women involved in prostitution also endorse the idea, said Jacqueline Robarge, the director of Power Inside, a program of Fusion Partnerships Inc. of Baltimore. Robarge works with women who have been incarcerated for prostitution and other crimes, and she recently surveyed some of them to get a better idea of what social services they need.

"You need the help ... because jail ain't helping," one woman told Robarge, who plans to release her findings in several months. "You keep locking people up for the same crimes. If you're doing the crimes over and over and over again, it ain't doing nothing for nobody. [Jail's] not helping them change."

The community court concept, which had success in New York and other cities, is not new to Baltimore. Leaders from the city's business community and court system teamed up in the 1990s to create such a court - the Greater Baltimore Committee raised $2 million to fund the project and the legislature appropriated $2.1 million for operating expenses - but it was scrapped when another court - the Early Resolution Court, which deals with nuisance crimes but doesn't offer the same level of social services - was created.

The Early Resolution Court was endorsed by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, who believed it would complement New York-style, zero-tolerance policing programs popular at the time.

And while the Early Resolution Court, housed at the Eastside District Court on North Avenue, has helped to reduce docket loads, it has failed to help some of the city's most desperate residents get the support they need to change their lives. The court does offer some education classes for marijuana and drug users, as well as community service in exchange for guilty pleas, but nothing more, said Patricia M. Deros, an assistant state's attorney who runs the court.

"It has helped to reduce the number of cases in the trial courts, but people are coming back because we haven't helped them enough," Deros said. "We need to do more prevention. It's easier to help them now then when they are coming out of the house of corrections after a lengthy sentence."

The community court effort is an outgrowth of two recent pilot programs - a community prosecution project that focused on crimes such as loitering and public drunkenness in Washington Village/Pigtown in Southwest Baltimore, as well as a short-lived prostitution court run out of the city's mental health court. Both projects had some success, according to those involved. And while the prostitution court closed after about a year when its grant money dried up, the community prosecution court has continued, although its staff consists of one prosecutor.

Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Etheridge runs the community prosecution court out of the John R. Hargrove Sr. District Court on East Patapsco Avenue in South Baltimore. Although she takes as many low-level nuisance crimes as she can in an effort to help neighborhoods bolster revitalization efforts, she can't get to them all. Still, communities have seen a decrease in criminal activity, Etheridge said.

The addition of the prostitution court could bolster such efforts, said Etheridge, who is working with her boss, Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, to create a community court with social services at Hargrove.

The Greater Baltimore Committee, which worked to bring the community court idea to the city several years ago, even purchasing a building on Gay Street to house it, is still supportive of such a concept, said President Donald C. Frye. The building, which was purchased with the help of the Abell Foundation, has since been sold, he said.

"It would allow the court system to address some of the underlying [social] problems without getting caught up in the normal court process of delay," Frye said. "The community court concept remains a good idea today."

Judge Charlotte Cooksey, who oversees the city's mental health court and also worked on the short-lived prostitution court, said she saw some women benefit from the help. "The population is so damaged that you can't expect a huge success rate, but we did see women who did well," she said.

One problem was that many women require drug treatment and there is a shortage of long-term treatment slots available, Cooksey said. "That's one thing that would cost some money," she said. "You need to have the appropriate number of [treatment] beds available."

Robarge, the director of Power Inside, is hopeful that the community court concept will work.

"I would like to see something with that level of consciousness in all courtrooms," she said. "I would like to see gender-specific services. ... By and large there is no help now. There are very few programs that are specifically targeted to women in prostitution."

Robarge said that many women engaged in prostitution feel like all they get are "condoms thrown at them." But they need more.

"You know, you put labels on people, 'Oh, well, they're HIV-positive. They're a prostitute. They're a drug addict,'" another woman told Robarge. "Underneath all that we're still human beings and we have very real feelings."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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