First-Offender Prostitution Program Finishes First Year

A program for first offenders of those caught soliciting prostitutes in the San Francisco area has just completed its first year. The controversial program is receiving praise and criticism.

BOB EDWARDS, Host: For a year, San Francisco has been offering an experimental program for first-time prostitution offenders. The program includes a unique class for johns, the men who have been arrested for soliciting prostitutes. Critics say the class, on the order of a traffic school, allows offenders to evade criminal punishment. Lubna Qureishi [sp] attended a day of class for johns and prepared this report.

LUBNA QUREISHI, Reporter: At the Diamond Heights Police Academy in San Francisco, a group of about 30 men sit attentively under bright fluorescent lights in a classroom. Some wear sweatshirts, while others are dressed more formally in slacks and matching sport coats. It' s a diverse group, but they're all here for the same reason - they were arrested for soliciting a prostitute. By coming here, these first-time offenders can clear their records and, says coordinator Terry Jackson, get an education.

TERRY JACKSON, Assistant District Attorney: It gets people thinking. It makes them think about prostitution. It makes them think about the exploitation of people, the social ramifications. That's what it is. And it gets a great dialogue going on.

Point out to you the letter that you received from us. If you have legal questions, if you think that there was entrapment, if you think it was a trumped-up arrest, then you are to talk to your attorney about that. And you are more than welcome-

LUBNA QUREISHI: So far, approximately 400 men have completed the program, which was put together by the police department, district attorney's office and Public Health Department. To qualify, the men must have no prior police arrest record as an adult. Those who can afford it pay up to a $500 fee. In return, the DA's office will drop the charges. One after another, over a dozen people lecture the men about the legal, social and health consequences of their acts. One community organizer, Philip Faith [sp], wants to make it clear that men who pick up prostitutes are at fault.

PHILIP FAITH, Community Organizer: You are the sole, only cause of prostitution in my neighborhood. It's that simple. Just in case you ever wondered where it came from, you always heard the routine about the oldest profession. Well, if it wasn't for gentlemen like you, we wouldn't have the oldest profession around.

LUBNA QUREISHI: Those in charge of the program also want to drive home the message that prostitution is not a victimless crime. A panel of former prostitutes makes one of the most powerful presentations of the day. One of the women, Angel, talks about her childhood as well as her life on the street.

ANGEL, Former Prostitute: And, you know, a lot of you guys think that prostitutes can't be rape, but that's a lie. That's a big lie, because you know what? When someone is beating a woman and strangling a woman, putting a knife to our throat, pulling a gun on us, that is rape. And I've been raped many times. You know, there were times that if I didn't get raped for a week I knew it was coming, and I just wondered which one was going to be the one.

LUBNA QUREISHI: After six hours, the class ends. Some of the men rush out the door, eager to leave. Others stay behind to talk. Although they declined to give their names, several of the men say they were moved by the presentations.

1st MAN: I think that now I learned what women went through when they were little. It was a hard time. And now I know that they have feelings, too, like everybody else.

LUBNA QUREISHI: Another man says he has to reexamine his behavior.

2nd MAN: The thing I feel like I've learned the most is that I need to get help for myself, which in turn hopefully will help everybody else that's involved with this. I definitely can't say that I won' t be there again until I figure out what it is that's wrong with me.

LUBNA QUREISHI: Not everyone feels as positive about the program. One participant, who agreed to talk only if his voice was altered, says the program doesn't address the root causes of prostitution.

3rd MAN: If you want to educate and have a class, then truly educate to stop the problem. Otherwise, you're putting a Band-Aid on it. So there are concrete things that can be done and should be done, and that's not to say that there are violent so-called johns out there that should be stopped, but there's a lot of innocent, confused, lonely men that are being thrown into this net, and it's not solving the problem.

LUBNA QUREISHI: San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Celia McGuiness [sp] is also a critic. She says a class that targets johns isn't likely to solve the real problems of prostitution.

CELIA McGUINESS, Public Defender: The key is not to stop prostitution, because you will never stop prostitution. The key is to address the particular issues in a woman's or a man's life that leads them to participate against their will in prostitution.

LUBNA QUREISHI: McGuiness says even though the program might educate, it bypasses the criminal justice system because the men give up the right to a court review.

CELIA McGUINESS: I don't think it's anything more than graceful bribery. Because these cases never get into court, none of their constitutional rights ever kick in. They have none of those constitutional protections. And so the coercive power of `give us $500 and your case will never see the light of day' is very powerful. So people who may have very good defenses, who may not be guilty at all will end up accepting the johns' school just to avoid the humiliation of it.

LUBNA QUREISHI: Assistant District Attorney Terry Jackson disagrees. She sees the program as an alternative to the already-congested court system.

TERRY JACKSON: We're trying to get through as many people as possible because we're trying to educate people about the criminal ot the legal, health and public ramifications of this type of crime. So believe me, the more people that we can educate, the better.

LUBNA QUREISHI: Changing sexual behavior isn't easy. The rate of repeat offenses by men who solicit prostitutes is very high, says clinical psychologist Al Cooper of Stanford University. Cooper says alternative programs that combine law enforcement with therapy are more effective than jail or fines.

AL COOPER, Stanford University: I think it might open the door for them to start looking at the real underlying root causes of why they go to prostitutes. I don't think it will resolve those issues, but I think it can open a door and get them to acknowledge those things and to seek out other ways of addressing those root causes.

LUBNA QUREISHI: The organizers of the first-offender prostitution program plan to continue the once-a-month classes. They say after the first year none of the approximately 400 participants has been caught soliciting again.

For National Public Radio, I'm Lubna Qureishi in San Francisco.

BOB EDWARDS: This is NPR's Morning Edition. I'm Bob Edwards.

Copyright © 1996 by National Public Radio. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

First-Offender Prostitution Program Finishes First Year., Morning Edition (NPR), 04-10-1996.