Cabell County tries new approach to prostitution — public shaming

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail
An electronic billboard located at the corner of Third Avenue and 20th Street, in Huntington, will display the faces of men convicted of soliciting prostitutes.

Over the past two months, Cabell County has announced new approaches to targeting prostitution that some would say are compassionate toward sex workers.

In September, officials announced that the county’s drug court would be expanding to keep sex workers out of jail and provide counseling, intensive supervision and other services instead.

Then, the Huntington Police Department announced that it would post pictures of johns, those accused of soliciting prostitutes, on a billboard to deter prostitution by reducing demand.

But sex worker advocates say the billboards could have unintended consequences for sex workers and that drug court is still the government punishing someone for doing something that should be legal to begin with.

They argue that sex work should be legalized or decriminalized and regulated, to create the safest, healthiest environment for sex workers.

Officials are calling the drug court expansion the Women’s Empowerment and Addiction Recovery program. Other states have tried it, but it will be the first specialty court specifically for prostitutes in West Virginia.

Jim Johnson, director of drug control policy for the city of Huntington, said the old approach, of writing citations or putting prostitutes in jail for 30 days, wasn’t working and that prostitution has become entangled with drug addiction as opioid abuse has increased.

He brought up the old adage about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

“We’re going to do something different, and expect different results,” he said.

Participants in the program must have committed a felony, either third-offense prostitution or something else, and have worked as a prostitute. Circuit court judges sentence the participants to the specialty court, and Cabell Family Court Judge Patricia Keller presides over the program.

Keller said about $643,000 in federal grants from the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will pay for three years of the program.

She said that after undergoing an evaluation process and discerning that their addiction problems are severe enough to warrant the program, participants are enrolled for one year.

She said she feels the program is important because, as a family court judge, she has witnessed the effects of drug addiction.

“Now I have to worry about parents that are shooting up heroin and leaving the kids unsupervised or allowing third parties in the home that are a danger to the children,” she said.

On Friday, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals held a ceremony rededicating the drug court in Cabell County and touting the new program.

Speakers talked a lot about the addiction problem in the city and how the new drug court is a way to tackle that issue.

What was less clear is why a specific subset of the population — prostitutes — was selected. In an interview afterward, Huntington Police Chief Joe Ciccarelli said prostitution hasn’t increased in Huntington, although arrests have significantly risen.

“The community’s fed up,” he said.

During the ceremony, Justice Brent Benjamin commended the program organizers for recognizing the drug addiction problem.

“Today is one step forward, as Huntington and Cabell County show the way to the rest of the state,” he said.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams grew emotional as he talked about the epidemic in the city. He said he wants the drug court to send prostitutes the messages: “You are not alone” and “You’re worth saving.”

“This is a city in recovery,” he said.

It was clear that supporters care about the addiction problem in their city.

Advocates for sex workers, though, took issue with the prospective punishment for women who don’t successfully complete the program.

‘Carrot-and-stick’ motivation

If participants don’t fully comply, the judge can send them to jail.

“That’s kind of like our carrot-and-stick motivation to stick with the program,” Keller said.

Sex worker advocates said that the “stick” is why drug courts aren’t the appropriate approach to prostitution.

Alison Bass, a West Virginia University journalism professor who interviewed sex workers for her book, “Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law,” advocates for putting money into housing and education for sex workers instead.

“It’s like holding a hammer over their head,” she said. “It’s not effective.”

Katherine Koster, spokeswoman for the Sex Workers Outreach Project, also said there would be better uses for the money.

“You can’t force someone to change something in their life unless they want to make that change,” she said.

She supports connecting sex workers with mental health treatment, reproductive health services and other services, but not through the criminal justice system.

“My question is why do we have to arrest people to connect them with services,” she said.

Koster also was concerned about whether the arrest would be wiped from the participants’ records, making it easier for them to find employment and housing.

Keller acknowledged that the arrests would stay on the participants’ records, but she said they may work out arrangements in which circuit judges allow them to drop guilty pleas after completing the program.

“We’re trying to find a good way to make that happen,” she said.

‘Collateral damage’ concerns

Advocates also are concerned about the billboards’ consequences for sex workers.

Koster said the work could become more dangerous, especially for streetwalkers. She said if johns are skittish and in a rush, sex workers will have less time to listen to their intuition and “feel out” whether the guy is safe or not.

Koster, who is from Chicago, said the police there tried a public-shaming effort, including media outreach and a section on their website shaming johns. However, prostitution mainly just moved indoors, where johns and prostitutes can look up information about each other online — johns, to ensure they aren’t about to be arrested, and prostitutes, to ensure they aren’t about to be killed.

She worries about the “collateral damage” of public shaming.

“It can affect their jobs,” she said. “It can affect their marriages. Having your dad’s face or your husband’s face on a billboard of men arrested for soliciting sex is really awful.”

Bass said the billboards also could make streetwalkers feel pressured to jump into the car and have less time to negotiate condom use.

“Public shaming has done nothing to deter the demand for sex work,” she said. “All it does is make life more difficult for sex workers.”

Jennifer Meinig, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, said the billboards also seem to be a way to deny the arrestees their right to due process.

“Before you’ve even been convicted of a crime, here’s this billboard shaming you publicly for allegedly committing a crime,” she said.

She also mentioned effects on the men and their families.

“Heaven forbid, someone might commit suicide,” she said.

Ciccarelli said men who are soliciting prostitutes are already hurting their families, even without the billboards.

“Every one of these women is an IV drug user who has the potential to carry communicable diseases that could be transmitted to the family members of these customers,” he said.

Ciccarelli said the department decided to try out the billboards based on the advice of Marshall University criminal justice professor Whitney Flesher, whose research, he said, suggested that exposing customers would curb demand.

“Many of them are leading double lives,” Ciccarelli said. “They have families. They have homes, and they certainly don’t want anyone to know they’re patronizing a prostitute in Huntington, West Virginia.”

Surveys, anecdotal evidence and criminology literature do suggest that public shaming can be effective, according to “A National Assessment of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Demand Reduction Efforts,” a study supported by the National Institute of Justice.

However, the researchers also note due-process concerns and damage to families.

“Given the prevalence of shaming and the potential for unintended consequences,” the researchers wrote, “it is important to determine whether effectiveness justifies its use.”

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5163, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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