SAN ANTONIO – Michele Jennings was 16 when she ended up on the streets, where substance abuse led her into a life of prostitution.
“You don’t know if you’re going to die," Jennings said. "You don’t know if you’re going to live. You don’t know if you’re going to get beat [sic] up.”
Her criminal history speaks of a woman who has been in and out of jail more than a dozen times.
“Incarceration just makes a person think, ‘how am I going to do it the next time and not get caught?’” she said.
Jennings has now been clean for two years. She is completing a GED and saving up money for a car. What turned her life around, she said, was probation and counseling.
“I’ve got a lot to look forward to," she said. "When I was out there, I didn’t have anything to look forward to.”
Her success is something Bexar County wants to duplicate by the thousands in order to help get San Antonio’s prostitutes the help they need and to clear out an already crowded jail.
“The jail in many instances is just a holding tank, and a very expensive one at that,” said County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson.
According to a study, Bexar County spent more than $1.2 million incarcerating and caring for more than $1,000 women, which is double the number from five years ago.
“We need to do more serious than just cycling our ladies through the jail and spitting them back out so they can try to cobble together their families once they’re out and then hit the streets again, only to be back in jail,” Adkisson said.
But now the county is focusing its efforts on probationary programs like the one that saved Jennings.
The Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program is designed to catch the young women and offer them several months of substance abuse treatment and individual counseling. Bexar County is giving $62,500, while federal grants will contribute another $250,000 to the efforts to rehabilitate the prostitutes.
Counselors said it starts by making the women acknowledge the drug abuse and oftentimes the sexual abuse that occurred at an early age.
The girls will meet in small support groups similar to those found in Alcoholics Anonymous programs.
Jennings said the love and attention she received in counseling gave her hope for the first time in nearly 30 years.
“That’s all we need," she said. "At least someone saying, ‘hey, you’re OK.'"