HOUSTON—Every year, millions of tax dollars in Texas are spent on prostitutes. The money goes for housing hundreds of them in Texas prisons and Harris County jails.
The 11 News I-Team found Texas has tougher laws for prostitution than most states, which can mean prostitutes can be charged as felons. That qualifies them for prison.
But the I-Team found one relatively new program in Houston that may be a far more cost-effective way to prosecute prostitutes. In researching the story, the I-Team talked with three former prostitutes about their previous lives and the punishment they faced.
"Do what you do, it’s over in a few minutes and you got this money," said Loisteen Phillips. "You can go anywhere to find a customer," she said of her time spent selling her services in Houston.
"If he looked like a treat, we tricked him," said Alfonette Thomas.
"(It’s) the oldest profession on the face of the earth," said Kathryn Griffin Townsend.
Townsend and Phillips said they were repeatedly arrested.
"Many times," said Phillips.
She said she had over 20 arrests.
"[The Harris County jail] became a home away from home for me. (It was) a revolving door," Phillips said.
They were hardly alone. At the county jail recently, there were 130 inmates charged with prostitution. Assuming that number is constant for a year, and with each alleged prostitute costing just under $50 a day to care for, Harris County taxpayers are therefore spending some $2.3 million a year on them.
Then there’s the state prison system.
The 11 News I-Team found that Texas is one of only seven states where prostitution can even get you time in prison (the other states besides Texas that make repeat offenses a potential felony are Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Illinois and Michigan).
The I-Team checked Texas prison data and found that in 2009, the state held over 300 female prostitutes at a total estimated cost to taxpayers of nearly $8 million a year.
"Three or more prostitution convictions, we’ll send you to prison five or 10 years. No other state even thinks about that," said State Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
"I had no idea how severe the penalties were," said former prostitute Townsend, who moved here from California.
"I was terrified," she said about getting sent to prison.
She said she actually did spend one year in a Texas facility. It convinced her that she wanted to quit prostitution. But here’s the thing: each of the women told the I-Team that prostitution wasn’t their real problem -- drugs were.
"I wanted my high, I wanted my drug," said Thomas.
"Drugs had become the pimp," she said.
Probation officers and court employees said it is the common denominator when they work with prostitutes.
"The ladies are in prostitution to support their drug habit," said Bernadine Gatling, with Harris County Community Supervision.
But as the I-Team found at the Harris County Criminal Courthouse, there’s now a new way to prosecute prostitutes. It’s called the STAR court (Success Through Addiction Recovery)
The court launched in 2003, and its aim was to exclusively handle addicts, male and female, getting them into treatment -- not jail -- so they hopefully wouldn’t come back.
Of the women who began showing up in front of the STAR court judges, one thing stood out: the majority of them were, or had been, prostitutes. But now, instead of being sent back to jail, they’re getting drug treatment -- closely supervised by a judge, who they have to report to weekly. The court has a vastly different decorum than what you might expect.
One of the judges who rotates through the court, Denise Bradley, smiled as she greeted the women, one after another, as they reported their progress to her in various recovery programs.
After one woman told the judge about her arrest on cocaine charges and her ongoing substance abuse treatment, Judge Bradley told her: "You’re doing great, we’re very proud of you."
Then, the courtroom erupted in applause from the other offenders, as well as court personnel.
"It’s so night and day from what it would be in a regular criminal court," said Townsend. She went through the STAR program and said it saved her life.
Phillips said the same.
"They have people who come teach you about how to get a job, how to be a lady, how to talk, how to recognize your defects of character," said Phillips.
The court staff who runs the program told 11 News it doesn’t work for everyone, but it sure beats just sending them to jail over and over and at a fraction of the cost.
"I have quite a few ladies that are doing very well," said Gatling with Community Supervision.
"I’d say it’s one of the most effective uses of taxpayer dollars that occur here in the courthouse," she said.
Currently, the program can help only a fraction of the women prosecuted in Harris County for prostitution.