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Getting off the street

The Baltimore Sun

Aproposal for a special court focused on prostitutes in Baltimore deserves serious consideration. But in addition to this targeted judicial approach, the city needs a comprehensive, citywide strategy to help a vulnerable population get off the streets.

It may be the oldest profession, but prostitution is also a crime that lands women in jail repeatedly. Too many of Baltimore's estimated 25,000 prostitutes cycle in and out of the criminal justice system but don't get help for what may ail them, including mental illness and other health issues, drug addiction, homelessness and trauma from previous or current abuse. In addition, their career choice is a manifestation of their low social and economic status and, generally, a lack of education and literacy. Many prostitutes are also mothers who need help reconnecting with children being raised by others.

The aim of a special court would be to provide expert case management to women charged with prostitution, have a clear assessment of their needs and help them secure appropriate services, including drug treatment, mental health counseling, decent housing and help dealing with the consequences of abuse, rape and domestic violence.

One obvious problem is that the city and state don't provide enough drug treatment to meet the demand. Like other addicts in the city, prostitutes need in-patient and long-term residential programs, and if they are turned away when they are ready to seek help, the moment may be lost. Unless additional resources are dedicated to providing services for these women, the specialized court cannot fulfill its promise.

But even if the court proposal can be adequately funded, there are still women involved in prostitution who manage to avoid the court system. They need more outreach workers than Baltimore Homeless Services, which is part of the city's Health Department, or special community groups can provide. Extending a helping hand and providing the right mix of services to prostitutes would be another way for Baltimore to keep more of its citizens from self-destructing.

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