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.”