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Sarah Gassen: Prostitution is no victimless crime, and Tucson program offers a pathway out

Sarah Gassen: Prostitution is no victimless crime, and Tucson program offers a pathway out

Beth Jacobs stopped midway through telling her life story and stood to greet the woman who just entered the church rec room. Beth smiled to her and spoke softly:

I’ve been in your shoes. I know what you’re going through.

The woman nodded at Beth slightly. She’d just been busted for prostitution by Tucson Police Department officers and offered a choice: go to jail or a diversion program.

The woman doesn’t look any different from any other woman you might see in Tucson dressed for a warm summer night. She doesn’t say much.

She listens. She watches everyone in the room.

She’s waiting for the catch, the gotcha. When you are bought and sold for sex, how do you see the world in any other way?

But there’s no gotcha in the softly lit room at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church at North Campbell Avenue at East Speedway. Round tables and plastic chairs fill the space. Each is decorated with pink or yellow flowers, a box of tissue and board game.

Beth doesn’t know how this woman arrived at this point in her life, but she understands. Beth was kidnapped at age 16, taken from a Midwestern town to Chicago and forced into prostitution. A drug addiction ensnared her deeper in the cycle. She tried to escape, but her pimp tracked her down. Finally, with the help of police, she says she was able to break free.

That was 30 years ago. Beth Jacobs now focuses her attention on growing Willow Way, an organization she’s pulling together to help women trapped by the powerful forces of addiction, trauma and prostitution.

She’s part of a group that’s organized this attempt to help women and men busted for prostitution — Project Raise (Responsible Alternatives to Incarceration for the Sexually Exploited). It uses the church’s kitchen and meeting rooms because it’s a few blocks from University of Arizona Medical Center. They want to be close by in case a person who comes in needs immediate medical attention.

Friday was the second time a range of social service organizations were brought together with the Tucson Police Department, the City Prosecutor’s Office and the City Court to actively try to intervene in the lives of people arrested for prostitution and offer them assistance in getting out of “the life.” Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik, who represents Ward 6, and his aide, Ann Charles, helped organize the outreach.

About a dozen women were brought to the church on Friday. They’re given the option by TPD officers when they’re cited.

The idea is straightforward: Offer help to the women and men who are cited for prostitution and who don’t have a record of violence or an extensive criminal record.

Instead of taking them to court — a prostitution conviction requires between 24 hours and 15 days in jail under the Tucson City Code — the program gives the person the chance to complete a 13-week diversion course that includes counseling, but can also require other work, such as substance abuse treatment.

If the person completes the program successfully, the charges are dismissed.

Friday night each woman was greeted at the door and offered something to eat and drink. They were offered free HIV and STD testing, toiletries and clothing. Each was paired with a peer support person.

“I want them to know that you’re not going to be enslaved your whole life,” said Sarah, 23, who has survived drug addiction and prostitution. She is part of Home of Hope, a program through Teen Challenge.

Each had an initial court appearance before City Court Chief Magistrate Tony Riojas. He checked the person’s record and set up a future court date. Each spoke with a city prosecutor, who decided whether to offer diversion. If not, or if the person declines, she’s taken to the Pima County jail.

(A person is entitled to a public defender only if the Prosecutor’s Office is seeking jail time, which it’s not if the person enrolls in the diversion program.)

Counselors conduct an initial assessment to learn what other assistance is needed. CODAC Behavioral Health Services and Cactus Counseling were there to offer shelter, substance abuse treatment and transportation.

Breaking free from prostitution requires tremendous strength and readiness, said Holly Darwin, senior director of specialized services for CODAC. As with getting sober, a person must change almost everything in his or her life. It’s daunting.

People who claim that prostitution is a victimless crime are wrong — the women and men who are sold are often beaten, raped and addicted to drugs. They are used in the most base way. A person may become habituated to the life, but does that make it a freely made choice?

“Some of these girls don’t realize and understand there are services to help them,” Riojas said. “Prostitution never exists by itself. There’s always other stuff going on.”

The women at the church Friday didn’t fit the stereotype of the good-natured hooker with the heart of gold (i.e. “Pretty Woman”) or the sassy, tarted-up, gum-smacking working girl.

These are real women. A tall woman made taller with perfect posture and impossibly high heels said she has a master’s degree but a long-ago felony record keeps her from getting a regular job. Another woman was so obviously dazed with what was going on that her confusion and fear were palpable.

“I don’t think it’s just a dozen people we’re looking at. For each of these there’s a ripple effect,” Darwin said. “When we’re working with women who have children, we’re also impacting their families and all generations to come.”

After I left the church Friday evening, while I was at home telling my loving husband about the night, a young woman was brought in.

She’d been dropped off at the hotel for work — being bought by strangers for sex — by her mother.

The daughter enrolled in diversion. Her mother, who also works as a prostitute, picked her up from the church.

What kind of chance does this young woman have?

The answer is clear: Without the empathy and extended hands of people who have the power to make a difference in her life for the better, like those assembled Friday night for Project Raise, not much of a chance at all.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star. Email her at and follow her on Facebook.

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