Program's aim: Get new hookers off the street, into counseling

2013-03-15T00:00:00Z 2013-03-15T07:47:46Z Program's aim: Get new hookers off the street, into counselingKim Smith Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 15, 2013 12:00 am  • 

It wasn't the usual crowd at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church that night. Instead of church members braving the cold, windy night and gathering to pray, social workers, police officers, prosecutors, a City Council member, a judge and suspected prostitutes came and went throughout the night.

They were there for the launch of a new program Steve Kozachik hopes will not only save the city money but turn around lives.

The Ward 6 councilman was looking at the city's budget a couple of years ago, wondering how to reduce it. It occurred to him that the city spends a great deal of money reimbursing the county for booking and housing people arrested by the Tucson Police Department.

The first day of incarceration comes with a price tag just shy of $242. Every subsequent day costs about $90.

Even more distressing is the fact many prostitutes are physically and psychologically abused by their pimps, addicted to drugs and alcohol, or are mentally ill, Kozachik said.

"It struck me that mandatory sentences for first-time prostitution offenders was not doing the women (or men) any good in terms of treatment and getting them out from the abusive subculture. It was also not doing the city any good from a fiscal standpoint," Kozachik said. "(I thought) there must be a win-win that will touch lives while also not cost us money in these tough economic times."

Before too long, Kozachik was meeting with law enforcement officials, prosecutors, social service providers, former prostitutes and the organizers of Project ROSE, a Phoenix-based diversion program for prostitutes.

Out of those meetings came Project Raise (Responsible Alternatives to Incarceration for the Sexually Exploited), and it was rolled out for the first time last Friday night.

On that night, Tucson police officers brought people arrested for suspected prostitution to the church instead of to the jail.

Those arrested had their criminal histories checked.

If it was the first time they had been picked up for prostitution and if they did not have a history of violence, they were extended an offer: No jail it they completed 20 hours of free counseling through Cactus Counseling.

Those arrested - whether they were eligible for the program or not - were offered food, clothing and hygiene products that were donated by Tucson Metropolitan Ministries, the Tucson Women's Commission and Southern Arizona Against Slavery.

CODAC and Cactus Counseling people were on hand to evaluate those arrested and determine their needs. Former prostitutes were there to offer encouragement.

The suspects were also given referrals to various agencies that can help them address their needs.

Similar roundups are expected, Kozachik said.

"This is a chance to reach into someone's life and pull them out of that subculture," Kozachik said. "It may have been the first time some of them were affirmed as a person rather than an object in maybe forever."

The city has long funded a prostitution diversion program, Alan Merritt, a supervisor in the Tucson City Prosecutor's Office, said.

However, Project Raise will give prostitutes access to several services all at once - services not normally mentioned in court.

"In my experience, substance abuse and exploitation are a part of this dynamic, and the earlier we can intervene the higher the success rate will be," Merritt said.

The group counseling sessions offered delve into a variety of issues, including harm reduction, substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, family dynamics and personal issues, said Matt Lenertz, clinical director of Cactus Counseling.

Sometimes further therapy is recommended for people with mental health issues or unresolved issues due to childhood abuse, Lenertz said. Those who have been coerced into the business by pimps or family members are referred to Emerge Center Against Domestic Abuse. Other referrals are given based on needs, including housing and food.

Until people's most basic needs are met, it's difficult to focus on other, bigger issues - the issues that might have led to their lives of prostitution, Lenertz said.

"For some of these people, it's the first time they've gotten any level of support services," Lenertz said.

Every year, approximately 30 people take part in the diversion program, but it's often an uphill battle for them, Lenertz said. They aren't required to be drug-tested, and there is no probation officer monitoring their progress.

Tucson City Magistrate Tony Riojas described the first night's results as a "mixed bag."

Perhaps due to the weather, only nine people were brought to the church, and only half of them were eligible for the diversion program.

A young girl who entered the diversion program really stood out to him, Riojas said.

"She said it was the first time she'd tried (prostitution)," Riojas said. "I think we gave her an opportunity to reconsider and to think about what she was doing."

"This is a chance to reach into someone's life and pull them out of that subculture. It may have been the first time some of them were affirmed as a person rather than an object in maybe forever."

Steve Kozachik

City councilman

By the numbers

Number of prostitution cases filed in Tucson Municipal Court

2011 100

2012 55

2013 11*

Number of lewd/indecent act cases filed in Tucson Municipal Court

2011 25

2012 18

2013 9*

*As of March 13.

Source: Tucson Municipal Court

Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or kimsmith@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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