College Studies New Prostitution Court

Press conference announcing Project SAFE.
Press conference announcing Project SAFE.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office recently launched a prostitution prevention program for young adults, and Sam Houston State University will help evaluate the success of the new initiative.

Called Project SAFE (Survivors Acquiring Freedom and Empowerment) Court, the program will target first-time offenders between 17 and 25 years old -- as well as some young repeat offenders – who face misdemeanor prostitution charges in court. The specialty court will focus on increased treatment, improved psychosocial outcomes, and enhanced personal safety for program participants as well as reduced criminal activities.

Hand with stamp that says stop prostitution.“In my opinion, the creation of this court is further evidence that a paradigm shift is occurring in the way the criminal justice system handles prostitution and sex trafficking cases which is especially salient in Houston/Harris County as it is a primary hub for such activities,” said Dr. Lisa Muftic of SHSU’s College of Criminal Justice, who will lead the evaluation component of the project. “There is a growing recognition that the manner in which we handled these types of cases in the past, such as arrests and jail time, have not been very effective as most individuals arrested for sex work cycle in and out of the system for years. The specialty court model allows for the development of a program that can address the unique needs of the target population in an effort to decrease the further sexual exploitation of program participants.”

The Houston metropolitan area is known as a hub for sex trafficking and prostitution, both domestic and international. Many of those arrested are girls and women who have been sexually exploited by customers, pimps and traffickers. Texas recently joined other states in adopting legislation to differentiate sex trafficking and prostitution. The law, “Continuous Trafficking of Persons,” creates a first-degree felony offense for individuals who commit two or more acts of human trafficking within a 30 day period.

Image of tied hands made up of words indicating slavery.In 2013, there were 340 first-time offenders charged with prostitution under the age of 25 in Harris County, with about 2,000 prostitution cases filed over the last four years involving young adults 17 to 25.

The high recidivism rate among people convicted of prostitution demonstrated that incarceration alone has not provided the tools needed to “break the cycle.” Many of those in the sex trade have long histories of abuse, neglect, and addiction. SAFE Court will address their needs by combining a specialty court therapeutic model with supervised, evidence-based treatment intervention. The goal is to reduce victimization and criminalization of these young adults and to improve public safety and health.

“SAFE Court is designed to bridge the gap between the criminal justice system and community organizations that help those engaged in prostitution,” said Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson. ”This court will provide these young people life skills needed to transition out of the prostitution lifestyle and to become a contributing member of society.”

Woman with handcuffs behind her back.Project SAFE Court is among a growing number of specialty courts in Harris County and across Texas, which target specialized populations, such as drug offenders, drunk driving cases, female offenders and veterans, to name a few. Prostitution courts may operate at the felony level, such as the Strengthening, Transition, and Recovery (STAR) Court in Dallas, or at the misdemeanor level, such as the Growing Independence and Restoring Lives (GIRLS) Court in Harris County Juvenile Court.

Dr. Muftic will evaluate the early development of the program as well and its implementation and outcomes. Two graduate students from SHSU also will assist in the study.
“Limited research exists on the use of intervention/specialty courts for sex workers,” said Dr. Muftic. “However, evidence does suggest that non adversarial court methods, similar to what drug courts provide, may be an effective intervention strategy for this population.”

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