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Police innovate to close prostitute ‘revolving door’

One Minneapolis woman has been arrested for prostitution 29 times and for loitering with the intent to commit prostitution 36 more.

She is a case study in why police officers, attorneys and prostitution survivors agree jail sentences do not deter women from re-entering prostitution.

“It’s kind of a revolving door,” said Minneapolis police Officer Matt Wente.

He said prostitutes who are released from jail are often back on the streets selling their bodies that same afternoon.

Because jail sentences don’t appear to prevent prostitution-related offenses, police and state legislators have sought less-orthodox ways to address the crime.

Since October 1997, the St. Paul Police Department has posted pictures of men and women arrested for prostitution or solicitation on their Web site. The site typically featured between 10 and 15 pictures.

Michael Jordan, St. Paul police spokesman, said posting pictures of johns – men who use prostitutes – has a deterrent effect.

“It gives (residents) an opportunity to feel like they can identify people in their neighborhoods,” he said.

State law allows posting pictures on the Internet, but some say it’s a misguided approach.

“The fact that the city posts people is more about punishment after the fact,” said Steven Sawyer, executive director of Project Pathfinder, a private nonprofit organization that administers a program for men who use prostitutes.

“I don’t think posting their pictures is necessary. It’s publicly shaming,” he said.

In Minneapolis, police
immediately seize the vehicle of anyone caught soliciting prostitutes.

Sentencing laws are the same for prostitutes and johns, and both are tried under the same Minnesota statute.

But Candy, a 41-year-old prostitute, said prostitutes receive harsher sentences than johns. She said johns typically are fined, but prostitutes are sent to jail.

“Only the men get fines because it is a sexist society,” she said.

Hennepin County Community Court Judge Richard Hopper – who hears the majority of prostitution and solicitation cases in Minneapolis – said he gives many first-time offenders the chance to attend a diversion program rather than receive a jail sentence or fine.

While prostitution and solicitation are misdemeanor offenses and are addressed in community court, promoting prostitution or soliciting someone to become a prostitute is a felony offense and is tried by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Anne Taylor prosecutes most of the prostitution cases in the county. She has prosecuted 23 cases in the last 14 months.

“There is a lot of activity in Hennepin County regarding prostitution,” Taylor said. “It keeps us busy.”

Fourteen of the 24 cases have been resolved – 12 defendants were convicted and two cases were dismissed.

Sentencing can vary depending on the individual’s criminal history, but a person convicted of promoting juvenile prostitution is automatically sent to prison for approximately seven years, Taylor said.

The best deterrent, Taylor said, would be tougher sentencing guidelines for felony offenses.

Wente said Minnesota laws prevent patrolling officers from effectively curbing prostitution.

Under current law, only undercover officers can arrest a suspected prostitute after an offer of sex for money. Uniformed officers can only arrest a suspected prostitute for loitering with the intent to commit prostitution, which is a weaker charge and more difficult to prove.

But the state’s laws are in line with those of other states, said Rep. Rich Stanek, R-Maple Grove, who is also a Minneapolis police inspector.

Stanek said the best way to curtail prostitution is through funding to assist homeless youth.

Minneapolis police Sgt. Dale Burns said judges should send juvenile prostitutes to treatment facilities rather than to the juvenile detention centers. He also supports harsher punishments for people recruiting prostitutes.

Taylor said under current law those charged with promoting prostitution sometimes receive lax sentences because judges are only allowed to consider offenses that occur in their counties.

She said the state Legislature should change the laws so individuals with offenses in several counties could be tried for all charges in one county.

A victimless crime?

Legislators have grappled with statutes regulating prostitution for 100 years, and the jury is still out over whether prostitution should be legal in Minnesota.

Proponents – including Gov. Jesse Ventura – say prostitution is a victimless crime between two consenting adults and therefore should be legal.

“If someone chooses to enter that field to sell themselves or someone chooses to use a prostitute, that is their choice,” said John Wodele, Ventura’s spokesman.

In 1999, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, authored a bill to repeal all statutes pertaining to sex crimes – such as prostitution, sodomy and bestiality – committed by consenting adults.

“This is an inappropriate role for government,” Kahn said. “A lot of this activity goes on between legally married people.”

Kahn said prostitution should be legalized because enforcing the laws is a waste of police and court resources.

Rep. Andy Dawkins, DFL-St. Paul, authored a bill in 2001 to provide St. Paul police $125,000 to target prostitution in the Frogtown neighborhood where he lives.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I am not propositioned,” he said. “Whenever we get the extra police, we see a difference. There’s less sort of settling in on the corner.”

Dawkins said St. Paul police Chief William Finney told him the department would need $1 million to maintain an increased level of policing in neighborhoods with prostitution.

The question remains whether legalization would create a safer industry for prostitutes.

Candy said legalizing prostitution would allow her to work in a house rather than on the street.

But Wente says women will still be forced into prostitution and working on the street, regardless of whether prostitution is legalized.

Prostitution is almost worse than homicide, he said.

“At least the homicide victim doesn’t have to live with the results,” Wente said.

Chris Stark, a former prostitute and co-founder of Escape: The Prostitution Prevention Project, does not think prostitution should be legalized.

“There’s a whole lot of men who think it is their right to buy human beings to masturbate on,” she said. “Men don’t have the right to buy women and children for sex. It’s not the inherent right to being a man.”

Joanna Dornfeld welcomes comments at [email protected]

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