Those arrested for prostitution in Cook County will get a chance to seek treatment and counseling instead of being locked up behind bars, under a new court initiative officials announced Friday.
Given that prostitution is no longer a felony in Illinois, the diversion program was the natural next step to help women and men caught up in the tangled web of sex trafficking, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said.
It also gives low-level offenders a chance to seek intervention, drug treatment and a “meaningful opportunity to turn their lives around,” the top prosecutor said, flanked by Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, Public Defender Amy Campanelli and several social service workers.
Starting on Monday, services will be offered to most of those who appear on prostitution charges before Judge Clarence Burch at Domestic Violence Court, 555 W. Harrison St.
The misdemeanor charges will be dismissed if those who qualify successfully complete the program.
Those who refuse the services or fail to complete the program will have the option of pleading guilty and undergo treatment instead of jail time.
Alvarez said current personnel and existing resources will be used to run the program, which she said was modeled after a similar one in New York.
Without access to housing and treatment for substance abuse and mental illnesses, many find it hard to leave the life of prostitution, said Erika Harding, a program administrator for the Christian Community Health Center, one of several groups working with the county.
Many prostitutes are recent immigrants who were promised jobs in the restaurant industry but instead were forced into the lifestyle the minute they stepped into the country, added Rachel Ostergaard, trafficking specialist with the Salvation Army.
These women and men need to be seen as humans who need help, and not as criminals, Evans said before signing an order approving the Chicago Prostitution and Trafficking Intervention Court program.
Campanelli echoed Evans’ sentiments, saying that sex workers are ultimately victims.
“By treating them as victims, the underlying causes of their plight can be treated and the cycle of exploitation and arrests can be broken,” Campanelli said.
“By offering individual counseling, substance-abuse treatment, housing assistance, health care options and assistance against domestic violence, these victims will be given real hope . . . They will learn how to . . . cut all ties to those who have abused them or dragged them into living lives of desperation.”
Alvarez said in Chicago alone, 500 people were arrested for prostitution last year.