Therapy at Gunpoint: Can This Controversial Philly Program Put an End to Sex Work?

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For two days every month, courtroom 1103 is unlike any other in Philadelphia. Before the judge enters, at 10 am, the chamber buzzes with conversation. There is none of the awed, nervous whispering found in most of the building’s other rooms. Almost everyone, except Assistant District Attorney Derek Riker, is female.

When Judge Marsha Neifield enters, everyone falls silent and rises. But as she starts to speak, her tone doesn’t sound particularly judge-like: “I really have to thank you guys, you did a really great job getting here earlier. Thank you for following through.” As the women, most of whom are on probation, are called up one by one, the judge evinces an impressively thorough knowledge of their families, job prospects and health issues. One woman admits to using drugs since her previous court appearance and blames herself. “Let’s get away from the word ‘fault,’” says Neifield. “Yes, you made a mistake and we’ll deal with that. But you have the skills to not do that next time.”

Judge Neifield is presiding over Project Dawn Court, a diversionary program for women who have been repeatedly arrested for prostitution. (Male sex workers are not allowed in the program and neither are trans women.) It is part of a network of similar policies—which cover those arrested for DUIs and drug charges as well as arrestees who are veterans or mentally ill—based on the problem-solving courts that became popular in the 1990s. Begun in 2010, Dawn Court grants access to therapy and rehab to women arrested for prostitution, while allowing them to avoid being locked up under Pennsylvania’s draconian prostitution laws—unless they fail the program.

To gain admittance, a woman charged with prostitution at least three times must plead nolo contendera—and agree not to fight the latest charge (which is held in abeyance for the duration). Once in the program, inductees are subject to a slew of sanctions intended to discipline them, ranging from writing essays to house arrest to a few days in jail. If a woman graduates, her case is dismissed with prejudice. A year later, if she has not been arrested again, the precipitating charge is scrubbed. The rest of her record remains.

This is, essentially, therapy at the end of a gun barrel.

Problem-solving courts have been hailed as a more humane alternative to the baldly coercive and adversarial practices that are the norm in the criminal justice system. Dawn’s Court in particular has been lauded in the city’s newspapers for its compassionate approach. Watch Neifield at work; the contrast with an ordinary courtroom is profound. But the moments where someone resists can be unnerving. The warm atmosphere gets tense, and becomes a reminder that this is, essentially, therapy at the end of a gun barrel.

“We just serve as a conduit to get women to these places and we have the court hanging over their head telling them to go,” says Riker. Critics of the program argue that Dawn Court targets an activity most public health officials agree shouldn’t be a crime at all. They also warn that arrest is often a traumatizing experience in itself—numerous studies reveal that street-based sex workers frequently suffer violence and solicitation of unpaid sexual services from police officers.

Today is the first of Project Dawn Court’s twice monthly sessions and it will probably be the happier of the two. The second is smaller, attended by those who the judge considers to be in need of greater oversight. There are still tense moments, especially when urine comes back dirty, but the judge is more lenient if the woman confesses. “We all make mistakes,” Neifield tells one woman who says she took a Percocet to deal with back pain. “Because this is your first minor slip, we’ll just give you a worksheet that will hopefully give you something to think about.” Another woman, who insists her positive test is inaccurate, gets 20 hours of community service.

Starting today, at the behest of the public defenders, those who maintain perfect attendance at mandated therapy or finish one of the program’s four phases will be given a gift. Donations of jewelry were collected from the Defenders Association’s office and now sit in three pastel gift bags at the judge’s elbow: rings and earrings in the pink tote, bracelets in the green one, and necklaces in blue. Neifield fishes out a selection from the robin’s egg receptacle, and smiles. “It’s a Tiffany bag, or close enough…it’s the right color,” the judge says, approvingly, before handing it down.

Despite its compassionate approach, Project Dawn Court is still very much part of the law enforcement apparatus. No state metes out a harsher penalty for prostitution than Pennsylvania; each offense can potentially result in up to five years in a state penitentiary. (The New York maximum, by contrast, is 90 days.) Those who agree to Dawn Court are rigorously monitored. Changes in their lives—a new job, a new living situation—are met with a barrage of questions. The answers will be checked out by their probation officer.

“These are women who have slipped through the system. We are dealing with the toughest of the tough.”

Dawn Court is meant for repeat offenders with at least three arrests for prostitution (indeed, it is the only problem-solving court in the city with a minimum number of arrests needed to enter it). Many of the women in the courtroom are middle-aged and have been cycling through the system for a decade. Although some come from middle-class suburban families, pretty much all of them are now poor and have been picked up doing street-based sex work.

“A lot problem-solving courts take first-time offenders before it spirals into something more,” says Riker. “These are women who have slipped through the system. So we are really dealing with the toughest of the tough.” He reels off the list of programs that Dawn Court helps women gain access to: prenatal appointments, parenting classes, medical insurance. But “the one really unique aspect of ours is focusing on the trauma.”

Riker is referring to the program’s work with the Joseph J. Peters Institute, a local clinic that provides services for survivors of sexual abuse and other traumas.Dawn Court operates under the assumption that most of the women engaged in sex work are severely traumatized, often from childhood, and that this is at the root of why the women sell sex.

“Trauma is preverbal,” says Mary DeFusco, an attorney with the Defenders Association of Philadelphia and one of the founders of Dawn Court. Rehab alone, she says, does not address the underlying cause of prostitution: “When the trauma comes back they can’t speak of it, they can’t say ‘go away you are bothering me.’ They just act almost out of an instinct.”

For Roth, the notion that law enforcement will be “judge, jury, and therapist” is deeply problematic.

But the notion that people sell sex chiefly because of deep-seated trauma is among the reasons sex worker advocates consider Dawn Court flawed and paternalistic.

“There’s no data to support what they are saying [that prostitution is rooted in trauma]—people do sex work to get money,” says Lindsay Roth, cofounder of the Philadelphia iteration of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, which advocates for sex workers. Roth agrees that many of the women are traumatized, but argues that this usually stems from poverty and the side effects of criminalization, not selling sex.

Still, even though a 2013 Journal of Poverty study of Dawn Court and other programs like it found that many inductees found the interventions intrusive, they were still very appreciative of the services provided.

“There was never nobody there to say ‘we’re here to help you,’” says Anne-Marie Jones, a 2013 graduate. She says she had been arrested fifty times, and that most of her encounters with law enforcement have involved neglect or threats. “At Dawn Court I was able to trust that everybody in that court wanted to help me—and that’s including the prosecutor.”

But for Roth, the notion that law enforcement will be “judge, jury, and therapist” is deeply problematic. The assumption that the women are or were victims makes the program politically palatable (a spin on the “deserving poor”) but does not get at the root of why these women turned to street-based sex work. Getting arrested a lot for prostitution means these women are doing it outdoors, an indication of their poverty and desperation.

“This population needs helping, that’s why most people do survival sex work,” says Roth. “But since when is a court a therapist? You are slapping them with another criminal charge that will make it even harder to get a job in the mainstream economy.”

Dawn Court does not have numbers on the employment rates of participants. But Dr. Corey Shdaimah, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, has interviewed six graduates of the program and found “they are facing very low wage jobs that are not at great hours and are hard to get to.” Many take jobs as janitors in the city’s universities. Anne-Marie Jones was lucky enough to get a position with a local women’s’ shelter, where she had previously lived. DeFusco notes that one graduate, who has the background to be a social worker, has struggled to secure a job because she flunks the criminal background check. One year after leaving Dawn Court, she is still unemployed.

African-Americans represent around 44 percent of Philadelphia’s population, and even more of those arrested. But the vast majority of the women in Project Dawn Court are white. This seeming oddity is related to where most of the women were arrested—the police heavily target the majority white and Hispanic neighborhoods along Kensington Avenue.

Kensington used to be the locus of the city’s booming textile industry. Through the 1960s the densely populated, rowhouse neighborhood continued to host a huge number of manufacturing jobs. But by the beginning of the 1970s, the inexorable logic of capital flight took its toll. As the stabilizing force of the textile mills receded, crime and grime came to dominate popular perceptions of the neighborhood (where Rocky was filmed). Concerns about youth crime, blight and drugs, especially heroin, dominate news stories about Kensington from the 1970s onward.

“It’s a paradise in comparison to regular criminal courts.”

Today the population living in the neighborhood’s zipcode has a 17.5 percent unemployment rate, and 22.2 percent of households live on less than $10,000 a year. It is known as an easily accessible market for drugs and sex market, especially around the looming Market-Frankford elevated train line that keeps Kensington Avenue in perpetual shade.

On a recent February evening, the intersection of Lehigh and Kensington Avenues is eerily quiet and shrouded in a light mist. A petite Puerto Rican woman, clad in a pink hoodie over a black track suit, waits nearby for potential customers near the Huntingdon elevated stop. (Her nickname is Mel and she agreed to an interview with the stipulation that her full name not be used.)

“I try not to [work on Kensington Avenue], because there’s not a lot of money to be made out here,” says Mel, talking over a slice of pizza at a nearby eatery. She used to work on BackPage, the classified advertising website that has come under sustained attack from anti-sex work organizations. “I’m desperate. I have a drug addiction, which is mostly why I can’t keep a job. I have a temper too, I get in arguments with my bosses and [get fired]. With this I can come in whenever I want, choose my own hours, can stop whenever I want. And I’m very good at it.”

Most of the women in Dawn’s Court are much older than Mel, who is 27 and claims to have only been arrested in police stings for prostitution twice. (She has worked as either a stripper or a sex worker since she was 18.) But even if Mel isn’t directly acquainted with the program, she knows a lot about it.

“You hear about it in court, waiting for sentencing, talking to the other women,” says Mel. Asked what she thinks of Project Dawn Court, she shrugs and reels off the potential consequences of not taking such a deal. The big plus, in her understanding, seems to be that with Dawn Court, you eventually get to go home instead of being locked up—although the women do have to enter inpatient rehab programs first. (Mel says she lives with her sister further north, in a more stable neighborhood.) “It’s a convenience,” she says. “They knock off a charge and you just have to go to meetings a couple times a month and give them a urine [sample].”

Back in Neifield’s courtroom, the day’s only graduate is one of the few black women in the room and seems to be among the youngest. The announcement is met with an eruption of cheers, and praise from both her public defender and Riker.

“It wouldn’t have happened without someone pushing,” she tells Judge Neifield, who asks her to come back and visit.

A couple of women do just that later in the day, popping in to the chamber to say hello. One alumnus shows up an hour late, bearing a cluster of white and purple balloons for the graduate. “I showered, got dressed and came down as soon as I heard,” she tells the judge. She completed Dawn Court last month. “It’s a paradise in comparison to what goes on in regular criminal courts,” says Defusco, stopping by to check in. In any normal court, she says, the day’s numerous women whose urine tested positive for drugs would have been sent to prison. She also takes a moment to again highlight Pennsylvania’s weirdly harsh laws: “It’s just insane,” she sighs.

Then she rushes off to aid another client, also booked for prostitution. The woman is in a different courtroom before a different judge, who is threatening a trip upstate.

Jake Blumgart is a reporter and editor in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Notable Replies

  1. Good story about a good program doing good work. Well done.

  2. I’m sure sex work will be stopped any millennium now.

  3. A process more concerned with justice than retribution? It’ll never catch on.

  4. I don’t understand why they don’t just legalize and regulate prostitution. Give the people who choose that path an opportunity to be protected from predators, an opportunity for health care. It would be safer for them, it would be safer for the general populace. I don’t understand why it is illegal in the first place.

    I’ve only ever known one woman who took that route, but she successfully paid her way through college with it, and has a good paying stable job now. She got out of college with no debt and was able to stop the moment she got a job. She isn’t ashamed of her past, but she is rather selective of who she talks to about it, for obvious reasons.

  5. Dang, Blueb: do you really wanna be Holland … or CANADA?

    No proliferation of unregulated firearms, universal entitlement to health care, progressive tax rates, prosecution of those who exploit sex workers for profit but not sex workers themselves – what an absolute nightmare living with all that would be.

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