PHOENIX — Last month, almost 60 women were arrested for prostitution during a two-day undercover sting here.
Among them was Cacee -- whose name has been changed to protect her identity -- a 26-year-old single mother who has been exchanging sex for money for five years.
Instead of going to jail, Cacee was taken to Project ROSE, an arrest alternative program for those accused of prostitution set up inside a central Phoenix church that donated space.
Although Arizona has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates and is among the handful of states with mandatory minimum sentences for prostitution, Project ROSE, short for Reaching Out on Sexual Exploitation, is designed to keep people out of jail.
How it works
The project is the brainchild of Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, an associate professor of social work at Arizona State University, and Phoenix Police Lieutenant Jim Gallagher, who co-founded Project ROSE in 2011 to help curtail prostitution in the Valley of the Sun.
Behind the wheel of his unmarked police car, Gallagher explains how he was once part of the "hook ‘em and book ‘em" school of thought when it came to prostitutes.
But over the course of his 18-year career, including four years with the department's vice unit, Gallagher ended up arresting the same woman nine times for prostitution, which changed his views on sex workers. He no longer believes just locking them up is the solution.
“I've done all the really cool jobs in police work that there are,” he said, driving along one of the city’s main tracks for prostitution. “The most important job that I've done is this, because it has given me the opportunity to really, really help an underserved population. These are discarded women: people that have been completely forgotten, people that make people uncomfortable.”
The underlying theme of Project ROSE is to not criminalize an individual’s victimization, he said, adding that the majority of women who enter the life of prostitution are compelled based on need.
“People that enter into a life of prostitution typically don't do it because they want to. There are circumstances in their life that lead them to what is typically a really bad circumstance,” he said. “Everybody's trafficked by something. And there's always somebody there willing to exploit that need.”
Phoenix Police Lieutenant
Twice a year for two days, anyone arrested on prostitution-related charges -- whether off the streets or in an online sting -- is brought to Project ROSE and offered a range of social services, versus jail time.
Those with outstanding warrants, certain felony convictions, or those who’ve already been through the city’s prosecution diversion program aren’t eligible for diversion again. (If taken to Project ROSE they are still eligible for the social services.) For those who are accepted, the arrest stays off the books as long as they finish the program.
During this latest sting, police brought 54 women ranging in age from 18 to 58 to Project ROSE, bringing the total to more than 350 since the project’s start in September 2011.
Once inside, volunteers lead the women to meetings with police officers, city prosecutors and social service agencies. The program’s co-founder says Project ROSE provides help with everything from housing, employment and health care, to help those who want out of the life of prostitution.
On average, 30 percent of Project ROSE clients complete the city’s prostitution diversion program requirements, of which 9 percent are re-arrested in the first year.
Police ramp up arrests during the two days Project ROSE is in operation in an effort to get more prostitutes into the program. For Project ROSE founders, this is part of the strength of the program. For opponents, this is the problem.
Project ROSE has brought opposition from local activists such as the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), a grassroots organization that’s part of a national network dedicated to improving the lives of current and former sex workers.
The week leading up to Project ROSE, members made the rounds across the city passing out condoms and water, while spreading the word about the upcoming sting. They also held a small protest in front of the project’s site.
Advocate Penelope Saunders said the best way to help sex workers is to decriminalize their work.
“Project ROSE seems to be blurring the lines between linking people to social services and arresting them,” said Saunders, the coordinator of the sex worker advocacy group Best Practices Policy Project. “People engage in sexual exchanges for the things they need to survive, to live, to support their families, and the laws against sex work and the policies against prostitution impact them directly by arresting them, by leading to incarceration.”
She added: “It's not dissimilar from legislation and approaches against drugs. There's a war on drugs. There is also a war on people who engage in sex work.”
And not everyone is interested in the help offered at Project ROSE. One woman who was arrested for placing an escort ad without a license declined to participate in the diversion program after a lengthy discussion with John Tutelman of the Phoenix Prosecutor's Office.
Sex worker rights advocate
“What makes you think that being in the law industry you have the right to tell me how to operate my industry, my business, my trade?” she quipped.
She was told her belongings would be returned and to expect a summons and a complaint.
Despite the criticisms, Roe-Sepowitz defended the program. "It is illegal behavior and there's nothing that we can do to say to the police, ‘Don't arrest them. Don't press those charges,’ except by saying, ‘Perhaps if we can negotiate with the prosecutor's office and law enforcement, that that arrest can kinda lay low,’” she said. "We're just trying to work within the system that we have, within the context of our laws, to be as helpful as possible."
Leaving isn't easy
Cacee was introduced to prostitution by a friend and got hooked, she said, adding that things quickly turned profitable after posting an ad on Craigslist.
“I was making beaucoup money. Like $900 dollars for 30 minutes, like I was getting it in,” she said. “It was a conscious decision I made, I decided on my own, like hey, I'm going to try this.”
Cacee personifies the difficulty some face in leaving the trade. She has no love for the work she does.
“Everyday you wake up and you just imagine how many blow jobs you have to give, or how many people you have to have sex with or things like that and it's just, it's kind of, you know, it's disgusting,” she said.
Still, Cacee said she struggled financially while completing the diversion program, eventually returning to escorting.
But this arrest was her third this year. Because she already completed the city’s diversion program in April, she doesn’t get to go through it again and her arrest will be filed. She's almost certain she'll have to do time. A third arrest requires a minimum two-months behind bars. A fourth would become a felony charge.
“I never ever wanted to struggle, ever. And that was just what kept me going, just continue to be an escort. I was like hey, I don't want to do this, but I got to do this because I'm taking care of my child. This is what I know right now,” she told America Tonight. “If someone offers you 200 bucks, 'let's go have some sex,' and you're just like, 'oh wow.' You know what you can do in 10, 15 minutes to bust a nut with somebody, you can get 200 bucks."
Fresh off her arrest, she vowed to quit, but said leaving “the life” isn’t so easy.
“Yes, I am planning to turn a leaf, but it is going to take time. So I know that with myself, ‘cause you just can't just stop something unless you have a plan B. And so right now, I don't have a plan B,” she said. “So I'm going to do this until I am set with a straight job. And that is my word. That is my word.”