A New Dawn: Philly Court Uses Compassion to Fight Prostitution

Today is not the first time Kristen Simmons (not her real name) stands before a judge in Philadelphia’s criminal court. In the 26 years she’s been working on and off […]

Photo by Brad Gellman

Today is not the first time Kristen Simmons (not her real name) stands before a judge in Philadelphia’s criminal court. In the 26 years she’s been working on and off as a prostitute, she has been arrested 16 times and has served four stints in jail.

Nothing has come easy for the 47-year-old, who says she would “constantly relapse” when it came to her addiction to cocaine, crack, crystal meth—and life on the streets.

Still, Kristen radiates with pride when attorney Mary DeFusco, of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, tells her it’s time to address the court. Clad in a plain, white T-shirt and denim skirt, she faces a tough-talking, no-nonsense Judge Lydia Kirkland, who says she has no problem sentencing repeat-offender prostitutes to SCI-Muncy, a women’s prison in upstate Lycoming County, Pa. “There’s no escaping Muncy,” she’ll say. “I’m going to make sure they have a jumpsuit your size.”

But Kristen has good news to report: She’s 10 months sober, off the streets and living in a residential facility. She volunteers on the community council at her treatment center. Soon, she says she wants to help women still zigzagging between turning tricks and copping highs on the street.

Instead of another jail sentence, Kristen receives a round of applause.

“Congratulations,” says a smiling Kirkland as she eyeballs Kristen for a few seconds before nodding approvingly and adding, “You look so good.”

“Ms. [Simmons] is on Stage III of Project Dawn Court,” DeFusco says, handing Kristen a certificate and giving her a tight hug. Everyone in the courtroom claps.

Project Dawn Court is Philadelphia’s newest problem-solving court, designed for women with repeat prostitution offenses. The first of its kind in the country, it’s modeled on the nationally lauded Philadelphia Treatment Court, established in 1997 to reduce both drug possession recidivism rates and the cost of jailing drug addicts by providing rehabilitative services under close court supervision.

Like Philly’s Mental Health and Treatment problem-solving courts, the goal of Dawn’s Court is three-fold: connect nonviolent repeat offenders with therapeutic and re-entry services; make the community safer by reducing recidivism of a particular crime; and lessen the financial burden of taxpayers paying to keep minor offenders in jail.

“In county prison, if you eliminate violent offenders, the second single largest block of women at the prison are in on prostitution and prostitution-related events,” says DeFusco, who led the way getting Project Dawn Court rolling with the collaboration of many people at various agencies (The Defender’s Association; District Attorney’s Office; The Philadelphia Adult Probation and Parole Department). “The way the city budgets it, that’s $95.90 a day per inmate.” By DeFusco’s estimate, the city wastes almost $10,000 a day housing prostitutes in jail—even more if the inmate has kids who must be placed in foster care. DeFusco calls this a no-brainer.

“The DAs don’t want to see these women in jail. The judges don’t want to see them in jail. They just want them to stop [prostitution],” says DeFusco. “[We] want them to get help, so they’re able to stop because the women themselves want to stop.”

Though prostitution is technically one of the lowest-rated crimes, offenders serve the highest percentage of their maximum sentence than any other type of inmate other than lifers. DeFusco says she’s seen prostitutes serve 13 months of a 12-month maximum sentence. “It’s completely crazy,” she says.

DeFusco calls traditional criminal justice “one size fits all.” And because 10 times as many men are in prison than women, that one size is “the male mode.”

“Criminal justice has one view of these women. First it’s like, ‘Here’s a nuisance crime, pay a fine and we’ll make this case go away.’ Then they found [the same women] keep coming back, so it’s almost like they’re saying, ‘We don’t mind you having sex for money, we mind you getting arrested for it,’ because they just raise the fine.”

DeFusco says “we’ve got to give [offenders] something other than the prison and the punishment that they have come to expect, because we know by now that prison does not work if we want to change behavior.”

With so little formal research on the lives of street prostitutes in the U.S., DeFusco’s a relative expert. Her perspective is culled from 28 years as a public defender, eight years working directly with prostitutes in municipal courts and lessons learned while helping establish and working with Treatment Court and Dawn’s Place—a refuge for prostitutes she co-founded in 2008.

From those experiences, DeFusco has drawn two main conclusions that Project Dawn Court is designed to address.

The first: the “backward” assumption that prostitutes start out as drug addicts. In DeFusco’s experience, the reverse is true.

But because the courts echo the cultural assumption, there was no intervention for women struggling to exit commercial sex work before Project Dawn Court. Instead, there was only fines, jail or drug rehab—which in DeFusco’s view, is treating a symptom of the problem and not the problem itself.

DeFusco offers a telling example. She recalls a young girl just out of high school who she recruited for the program back in January. Without Project Dawn Court in place, the system did the only thing it knew to do.

“They sent her to a drug rehab,” says DeFusco. “She didn’t have a drug problem.”

Before long, the girl fled the facility and slipped back into the ether.

“By the time we see her again, they’d know what to do with her,” says DeFusco. “Because by then, she’ll have a drug problem.”

DeFusco says that mindset puts “the cart before the horse.”

Project Dawn Court coordinator Laura Hokenson interviews women for the program, and confirms that this pattern is reflected in the records of candidates.

“A lot of women are going into prostitution without these substance abuse problems, then developing them, so usually we’ll see possession of controlled substances [on their record] but usually later,” she says. Of the 20 or so women Hokenson has interviewed so far, she says that’s the case for all of them.

“You get women who got stoned in high school, but none that were full-blown addicts before they get into prostitution and that’s what’s crazy,” says Hokenson, who says she was surprised by the discovery. “It becomes a whole convoluted cycle with the drugs. It’s the only way of escaping the prostitution they then do to fund their drug habit.”

Project Dawn Court is customized for each woman; her program is based on the results of the mandatory Forensic Intensive Recovery (FIR) evaluation—which determines treatment providers. Because the paperwork to order a FIR can take up to six weeks to process, women who enter the program sometimes sit in jail longer than they would have if they didn’t join Project Dawn Court.

The program is rigorous. It requires a commitment to at least three months of in-house therapy and, as necessary, counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, childhood sexual abuse, drug addiction, parenting classes, tutoring prep for the GED, job training and therapy specifically designed to address the repercussions of the commercial sex business.

“I don’t want to say prostitutes anonymous, but they’re specifically working on the exploitation,” Hokenson says.

Once a woman enrolls in Project Dawn Court, her plea is held in abeyance while she undergoes the program. If a woman fails, she faces an escalating series of sanctions that can include writing an essay or sitting in the juror’s box in a courtroom listening to prostitution cases all day. Messing up means slipping back to the beginning of that phase.

There are four phases to the program: the first lasts 30 days, the second lasts 90 days, and the third and fourth are 120 days each. At the successful completion of each phase, a woman receives a certificate and applause.

“For some of these women, it’s the first round of applause they’ve ever had in their lives,” says DeFusco.

Women usually live at a residential facility during Phases I and II. Then, like Kristen, they return home during III and IV. Throughout, they appear in court monthly to update Kirkland. If the woman fails out entirely—when the judge is sick of giving her chances—she goes to jail.

At graduation out of the program, possible after one solid year, their last case is formally dismissed with prejudice.

It’s a system DeFusco refers to as “the carrot and the stick.”

Today is Kristen’s sixth appearance in the Project Dawn Court program. Her will has stayed strong since she signed up. After all, she learned about the program while sitting behind bars—then stayed an extra month just for the opportunity to get clean.

“I said you know what? I want to do it. I had no chance. I need the help.” She adds: “I’ve been running from this thing for years, not wanting to look inside myself. I was scared to.”

Of the dozen women enrolled so far, she’s at the head of her class.

Now, Kristen’s at the point in her recovery where she can leave her residential facility and head home. For her, the idea of living in a sober and safe home is a big carrot. She hasn’t had that since she was 8 years old.

Her blue eyes well up as she talks about how her father began sexually abusing her when she was 9.

“From being out there and what my dad did with me, I had a lot of issues, abandonment issues,” she says.

One night when Kristen was 14 years old, she says she barricaded herself in her room with a dresser up against her door. “He tried to get in,” she says. “The next day I said I was doing wash. I got my clothes, left and never looked back.”

Though she didn’t know it at the time, Kristen, like so many women, traded abuse in the home for abuse in the street.

At first things were OK. She says she met a good man and moved in with him. They had a baby. But then she found her son’s father dead and life slid downhill fast.

“I was drinking a lot to kill the pain. And doing cocaine and meth … I fell in the rut,” she says, adding that her husband had a four-year degree, and she was from the projects. “I never knew to pay a bill, I couldn’t read or write,” she says.

“My sister-in-law, she showed me how to make quick money,” she says, referring to prostitution. “I didn’t even know how to go to welfare.”

Soon, she met a schoolteacher who supported her in exchange for sexual services. She moved in with him. She was doing drugs. For Kristen, it all sort of happened at the same time, like a tornado.

“When things got hectic, I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t get a sponsor, I wasn’t doing any of that,” she says. “So I’d think, I can handle this alcohol, but sooner or later … it’s not doing it anymore. Then you have a couple dollars, and it’s, ‘I’ll cop a couple of rocks,’ and then you’re off to the races,” she says.

Kristen says now that she’s stopped and is taking a hard look at her life, her mind races with memories and regrets.

As she sits on a back patio at the residential facility in the Northeast, a couple of cats snooze at her feet in the sunshine. She looks relaxed. This haven is less than a mile from where she used to turn tricks, chase highs and dodge death.

“A 70-year-old guy picked me up and paid me. I took care of him,” she begins. “He went to start the car but he didn’t. I said, ‘What are you waiting for?’”

He went to pull a “big barrel Clint Eastwood gun” from the backseat. She wrestled it from him, broke free, ran out of the car and got rid of it.

Then there was the guy who stabbed her in the throat with an ice pick.

“I kicked the door open, and I ran across the street to a house and banged on the window,” she says. A man inside stared at her and didn’t move a muscle except to shake his head.

“’I’m saying, ‘Help me, help me,’ and blood is coming down,” she says. Her attacker came after her before abruptly turning around, slipping into his car and taking off.

“The insane part?” she asks. “I still walked like a mile more, with one shoe on, one shoe off, to go cop.”

DeFusco says the criminal-justice system is backward in how it deals with prostitutes because it focuses on arresting the sellers, not the buyers.

In 2009, the Philadelphia Police Department made 837 arrests for “solicitation for immoral purposes” and only 60 arrests for “patronizing prostitutes.” The majority of the latter were likely cuffed during the special “reverse” sting executed last December when the PPD picked up 76 men while searching for one who had beaten and raped four prostitutes.

But on a typical night, Sgt. Irvin Riley of the Vice Unit says his squad sees and arrests the same faces—though the faces deteriorate so rapidly they are sometimes hard to recognize at a glance.

Riley says he doesn’t know why the stings focus more on scooping up the people selling sex than the people buying it.

“It’s just for some reason been that way and I don’t think if you asked a high authority within the police department or within law enforcement, they could even give you an answer that would make any sense,” he says.

On a recent night in July, a sting is going down in Kensington, a neighborhood Riley says is the worst area in the city for prostitution. It’s everywhere and comes cheap; $20 is the average rate for sex.

Not yet twilight on a weeknight, Riley drives only a few blocks before he spots the first working girl. All bones in dirty jeans and a T-shirt, she’s standing on the corner under the El, staring into space, wobbling as if the ground’s shifting beneath her feet.

The first prostitute is arrested just minutes into the operation. By 10:30 p.m., seven women and a man wearing makeup are cuffed and sitting in the back of the wagon.

Most of the offenders, all white, look like they’re in their late 20s and 30s. None of them are tricks.

A girl slumps against the corner, eyes closed, nodding out.

The man, who goes by Angel, is furious.

“This is how I make a living. Not everybody has the easiest life,” he says. “Maybe we’re hurting ourselves, but we’re not hurting anybody else and this is really fucked up. Now I have a horrible record because I’ve had to be out here to survive for years … I was a college graduate. I’m far from an idiot.”

Angel says he has been out here since he was a teenager. “I had to take care of myself and my brother. And yes, drugs later on came to into play,” he says.

Angel says he was out working because he got robbed earlier that morning.

“I gotta bring money home for my brother to eat. But now I’m getting locked up and for what?” he asks.

The cycles seem endless and indeed, grind most into an early grave. According to Philadelphia’s Womens Death Review Team report, the average age of death for a prostitute is 38.

Not everyone can be saved. Project Dawn Court walks a tightrope between giving a disadvantaged person a fair shake and a criminal a free ride.

On court day, of the nine women scheduled to appear, only one other woman receives a certificate. Two women had been arrested since joining and five earned bench warrants by going AWOL—by either leaving the treatment facility or missing court. When they are picked up, they will be arrested and returned to prison to begin the program again.

In contrast to Kristen, the woman most likely to fail is 26-year-old Janelle, who after 11 convictions, was recently arrested again.

“What are you trying to do with your life?” asks Kirkland.

“Get better,” Janelle says. “I am !”

“You always tell me that,” says Kirkland.

“Then I’m not even going to tell you that anymore,” she responds. “I’m just going to show you. I mean, how many chances are you going to give me?”

“That is a good question,” says Kirkland, leaning back in her chair.

“Honestly,” says Kirkland, “my gut is telling me to send you up to Muncy [women’s prison], because I am not playing with you. You’re lucky to have Ms. DeFusco. You have a very compassionate person with you. She has more patience for your situation.”

Kirkland asks Jeanette Palmer, her parole officer, what she thinks.

“The truth is that she’s an addict,” says Palmer. “She’s very noncompliant… She loves the street; she wants to be in the street. She definitely needs an opiate blocker.”

DeFusco, standing at Janelle’s side, cuts in.

“Here’s the thing. We’re not going to fail her, she’s going to fail herself.”

“All I hear are buzzwords. I’m not a buzzwords person,” retorts Kirkland. “On one hand you have people trying to give you the treatment you need for your condition, and it is a condition … but the other option is jail. Part of what judges do is punishment. Some of it is rehabilitation, but some of it is punishment.”

In the end, Janelle is given one more chance. Like a game of Chutes and Ladders, she’s whisked back to the beginning to start over.

For Kristen to start over, to resist the familiar rhythm of life in the street, she has to work hard. She says it’s not just about staying off drugs; it’s about dealing with all of it. She says she shares everything in therapy now, she doesn’t hold back.

“I got a lot of guilt, you know?”

Though she’s said that she split her parents’ house and “never looked back,” that’s not entirely true.

Kristen’s parents died a few years ago. She cries as she talks about them dying. She says though she was in jail at the time, she was able to say good-bye to her mother on the phone. She visited her father on his deathbed.

“I said, ‘Daddy, I love you, I forgive you. I know it [the abuse] was the alcoholism.’”

He died the next day. “I feel like they waited for me,” she says.

Kristen says she finally understands that she can’t outrun the shame, no matter how many cars she hops in and out of, no matter how high she gets.

“My whole life, that’s the only thing I knew, from the age of 14,” she says. “You look for love in all the wrong places and you just get caught up.”

Kristen says she needs to help others in order to feel important. She helped get her son off heroin. She dreams of teaching handicapped kids and looks forward to doing outreach next.

She wants very badly to break the cycle.

“I looked at myself and realized this ain’t the life I want to live,” she says. “I got a grandson … and I don’t want to live that life no more.”

Kristen’s next appearance for Project Dawn Court is at the end of August. At that point, she’ll have been working the program for 120 days, with 240 more go to become the first graduate.

“You can’t ever give up on anybody,” she says. “Because nobody gave up on me. And here I am … It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”


    More Popular Articles

    Upcoming Philly Events

    More Events