Sex Sting

A TPD operation aiming to direct sex workers into a new diversion program results in only four arrestees qualifying

If modern-day sex-worker stings still resemble episodes of Baretta, you couldn't tell that by surveying the social hall at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church on Friday, March 8.

Near the kitchen, sandwiches and cookies are laid out for a special group of guests expected at any moment—Tucson sex workers.

Clothing and personal-hygiene items stacked in a corner of another room are available for sex workers. Milling around the social hall are volunteers preparing food, counselors from Cactus Counseling, social workers from CODAC and advocates who were once sex workers themselves.

Standing in the midst of the activity, offering some direction and answering questions, is Ann Charles, chief of staff for Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik. Charles explains that what's going on at the social hall is part of a new sex worker diversion program that's been six months in the making.

A similar program in Phoenix "is saving hundred of thousands of dollars in their court system," Charles says.

"The system isn't fair when it comes to prostitutes. Johns are able to post bail. This is about justice, but also serving individuals and creating a nonadversarial position."

In Phoenix, the diversion program is called Project Rose, but in Tucson it's called Project RAISE (Responsible Alternatives for the Sexually Exploited). Charles says the point is to create a program that brings various nonprofit and government services together with several goals in mind, including saving the courts money.

Charles says that when she and Kozachik started researching what existed in Tucson City Court, it was obvious that there was a lot of confusion. Some people thought they were in a diversion program but weren't. There also seemed to be little understanding of what ancillary services were involved.

An advocate sitting by the doorway at Our Saviour's, 1200 N. Campbell Ave., will be assigned to every sex worker brought in this night. The sex workers will first be taken to a room where a prosecutor and judge will determine if they qualify for the diversion plan. They will be asked if they want to go that route rather than face a formal charge on their record and possibly a week in jail.

Once sex workers sign on for diversion, an advocate takes them to Cactus Counseling for an assessment. The counseling service has a contract with the city of Tucson specifically for Project RAISE.

"What are their needs"? Charles asks. "Typically there are physical needs and a lot of abuse that is happening. Up in Phoenix, they literally had a couple of people almost die when they brought them in."

Counselors expect to encounter a wide range of experiences: drug abuse, sex abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, unemployment and homelessness. These challenges, however, are why CODAC was brought in—to assess and provide services such as temporary housing. If the sex workers stick with the program—services through CODAC and counseling through Cactus Counseling for six months—the prostitution charge from the evening's arrest will be dropped.

Not everyone arriving this evening will qualify for diversion. According to Tucson police Lt. James Graves, sex workers who have felonies on their record, a high number of previous arrests for prostitution or an outstanding warrant may not qualify.

Graves, one of the coordinators of the sting operation, says the operation is being split in half. Some officers are focusing on neighborhoods where there have been previous complaints of street-walker activity. Others are focusing on two Tucson motels that may be connected to Backpage, a controversial online classified advertising site known for its sex workers ads. Graves says officers have been making appointments with sex workers directly by calling their Backpage ads.

Graves has been with the department for almost 20 years. And in that time, he said, TPD had never done a sex sting operation. Typically, various divisions handle complaints in neighborhoods, and those usually involve prostitutes working the streets. TPD does not have a vice unit to focus on specific crimes, like sex work.

"We're going to try to determine the volume of the problem," Graves says. "Right now, the street-walker presence has apparently gone underground. We don't see it as much as we used to—at least on the surface."

Tucson City Court Judge Tony Riojas is eating a sandwich as he waits for arrested sex workers to arrive so he can determine if they qualify for the diversion program. Prosecutor Alan Merritt is sitting at a table next to the judge.

Riojas says he's not seeing as many prostitutes come before his bench as he used to—although there are more felony prostitution charges being brought to the court from the Pima County Attorney's Office.

Riojas says he thinks a sex worker diversion program would be a good step if it is based on successful court models such as those for the homeless and the mentally ill.

However, experienced sex workers, he says, know there are risks in the business, including the risk of arrest.

But "I think a lot of people, especially younger people, don't understand the risk. It haunts you."

Outside the church, protestors from the local Sex Workers Outreach Project, or SWOP, are lined up. One of them comes inside to distribute fliers but is told to leave. Juliana Piccillo, a SWOP spokesperson told the Weekly "However well-intentioned Project RAISE is, they are coercing mostly poor women into services they may or may not need under the threat of incarceration. These services should already be available and the project should target it's efforts into dismantling the institutions that force women into poverty and subsequent sex work as a means to make ends meet (or whatever else they choose to do with their profits). If they want to help sex workers, they can ask them what help they might need without arresting them first."

Volunteer Beth Jacobs understands where Piccillo is coming from, but at the same time she says it's important to understand that there are women in prostitution who need help, just like she needed help when she was trafficked by a pimp in Minnesota from age 16 to age 22.

Jacobs is starting a nonprofit agency called Willow Way, with a goal of offering more survivor-driven programs. Jacobs finally made her way out of prostitution when an agency offered her help and a new life in a group home for two years. She then returned to college and got a bachelor's degree in social work. Before moving to Tucson, she spent 13 years helping prostitutes.

"I had someone call me asking if I knew of any resources here in Tucson. I looked, but couldn't find anything. There was nothing. Right now in Tucson there is no safe place for a woman identifying as a prostitute to go to for help," Jacobs says. "I want that to change."

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