“Prostitution and gambling have, like heroin and cocaine, generated enormous illegal markets in the past, been the source of corruption and the centerpiece of moralistic debates about prohibition,” writes University of Maryland professor Peter Rueter in Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, and Places.
“Prostitution,” Rueter and his co-author Robert MacCoun–professor at the University of California, Berkeley–go on, “represents an illegal market subject to very light enforcement, aimed not so much at reducing the extent of prostitution as the disorder, incivility and crime that can be associated with its unregulated operation. It is an example of harm-reduction-oriented enforcement; it has been successful enough that notwithstanding a continuing flow of low-level corruption cases, a large illegal prostitution industry has not been seen as a major social problem.”
And in Baltimore the state’s attorney and the police have made modest attempts to institutionalize this enlightened “harm-reduction-oriented enforcement” when it comes to prostitution in the city. What these efforts show is a concrete example of a fundamentally different way of policing and prosecuting crime in Baltimore and places like it.
A closer look:
In 2009, the Baltimore’s state’s attorney’s office launched the Specialized Prostitution Diversion program (SPD). The SPD program grew out of the Prostitution Task force created in the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay neighborhoods of South Baltimore and allowed for someone arrested for prostitution access to the following:
- One-on-one specialized counseling by a dedicated clinical social worker;
- Pre-trial monitoring including drug testing and supervision;
- Immediate and ongoing access to substance abuse assessment and referral;
- Access to a diversion program for persons who have a record (other diversion programs generally require that the person be a first time offender);
- Referral to other services such as trauma counseling, health services, employment training, etc.; and
- A nolle pros rather than a conviction record upon the successful completion of the SPD program.
In addition to the limited support of the state’s attorney’s office, the SPD program has received outside grant funding and has also been the subject of no small amount of evaluation. For example, in December Dr. Corey Shdaimah, associate professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work in Baltimore and her colleagues published a fascinating look out how specific communities feel about prostitution in their neighborhoods and what the response should be. Neighborhood Assessment of Prostitution as a Pressing Social Problem and Appropriate Responses: Results From a Community Survey, published in the December 2012 Criminal Justice Policy Review, looks in a deep, nuanced way at how the communities of Washington Village-Pigtown, Curtis Bay-Brooklyn and Cherry Hill think about prostitution and how it should be policed.
Here is what the researchers conclude:
Findings from this study indicate support in those Baltimore neighborhoods most affected by prostitution for a program such as the SPD, a hybrid response that provides therapeutic intervention nested within the criminal justice system. While neighborhoods are made up of individuals with heterogeneous sets of beliefs, there is no clear preference among community members in any of the three target neighborhoods for either a punitive or a rehabilitative response to prostitution concerns. The nearly equal distribution of residents who support a therapeutic or rehabilitative response as opposed to a punitive or criminal response, as well as the notable presence of those who support a mixed response, suggest that communities are frustrated with prostitution and those who engage in it. At the same time, these residents have some empathy or understanding of prostitution as a response to other systemic problems, such as addiction and poverty. Support for delivery of such services within the traditional criminal justice system is indicated in two of the three neighborhoods, based on popular designation of the police or criminal justice system as the most appropriate responders. However, in Cherry Hill, where prostitution is perceived as less of a problem, it seems that residents lean more toward the delivery of such services by social service providers who are unaffiliated with the criminal justice system.
This study has implications for other jurisdictions considering responses to prostitution that are initiated and/or supported by local communities. The findings indicate that beliefs about who can effectively address prostitution differ within and among neighborhoods. While responses to prostitution that include a broader range of strategies and philosophies might not satisfy residents with strong preferences toward rehabilitative or punitive models, they may be the most likely to satisfy an expansive range of constituents and speak to neighborhood concerns as a whole. Survey participants suggested that many of those engaging in prostitution in Baltimore come from the neighborhoods in which they practice; as such, communities might also be well situated to inform effective measures that encourage desistance. The understanding of what may help people desist from prostitution should include an assessment of which factors motivate them to engage in it in the first place. Residents in these Baltimore neighborhoods indicate an association between prostitution and both addiction and poverty, largely consistent with research findings from across the United States and in the international community. The prevalence of this association suggests the usefulness of hybrid programs that address underlying concerns rather than solely relying upon punitive responses.
“Hybrid programs” that address “underlying concerns” and don’t rely on “punitive responses” alone could, of course, apply to much more than the policing of prostitution. This is Rueter and MacCoun’s larger point in Drug War Heresies. Why we don’t, as they show, is not a matter effective social policy, cost-effectiveness or justice, but specific political and ideological decisions about crime and criminals.
In fact, even with prostitution in Baltimore—despite the evidence of SPD’s success—it is often simply easier to rely on the “punitive response” in our fight on crime. For example, despite its success, from the program’s inception in 2009 through 2011, only half of those eligible for SPD received its services because of lack of funding and resources. Even when an Abell Foundation grant allowed Baltimore to double the size of SPD it still could not accommodate all those eligible.
In accepting the Abell Foundation money, Baltimore State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein spoke to the model’s success:
By doubling capacity, we can make an even greater impact, and for that we all benefit. The quality of life improves for people living in neighborhoods affected by prostitution. Likewise, public health improves with the reduction in sexually transmitted disease and associated drug use. And the program actually saves money for taxpayers by cutting expenses for such things as incarceration, supervised probation, and repeated prosecutions.
This, of course, begs the question why we are not investing more fully in such programs to begin with.
Repeat: Saves money. Improves public health. Keeps people out of jail and the courts. “We all benefit.”
Here is the path forward for fighting crime—if we are smart enough to take it.