Early one morning last September, Sara Blanch’s husband was on his way home when he spotted a familiar figure near the corner of 31st Street and Longfellow Avenue in the Corcoran neighborhood in South Minneapolis. “It was a woman he had seen several times before,k” Blanch recalled. He confronted her, asked her to leave, and she started screaming at him. The woman’s pimp appeared, pulled a gun, and slugged Sara’s husband under the eye—breaking his jaw—and left him lying in the street. The pimp and the woman disappeared, and as far as Blanch knows, no one has been prosecuted for what would amount to third -degree assault—a felony.
On other occasions, according to Blanch, streetwalkers have attempted to enter cars that have stopped at local intersections, and female residents in the Corcoran area have been propositioned outside their homes. Winter depressed the traffic somewhat, but spring has produced a boom in prostitution-related activity. “It’s even worse now than it was before,” Blanch said.
Third Precinct police officials and area residents believe that a combination of Lake Street construction and redevelopment have pushed the street-walkers south, into the temporarily converted thoroughfare along 31st Street. But other long term trends have contributed to the problem. “Our staff is finding that there are more women using meth now than a couple of years ago,” says John Till, of Family and Children’s Service. “Prostitution is driven by drug use. We see a lot of isolated and victimized women, but this is the most visible sector that we are aware of.”
Another factor is changing neighborhood demographics. “The Corcoran neighborhood is a middle-class area with a lot of energetic people,” says 30-year resident Bob Milner. “But at some point as more people died, or moved away, their houses deteriorated.” Absentee landlords turned those properties into rentals, but often did little to maintain their investments. “There were three drug houses near where I live,” said Milner. “We had to put pressure on the landlords to evict the dealers.”
On May 13, the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization (CNO) closed the stretch of Longfellow between 31st Street and 32nd Street for a block party. About 50 area residents chatted with Third Precinct police officers, listened to live music, and met assistant city attorney Scott Christenson. Other prominent attendees included Volunteers of America director Bill Nelson; Women’s Recovery Center liaison Vicky Smiley; Third Precinct Crime Prevention Specialist Karen Skrivseth; and Southside Prostitution Taskforce founder Linda Kolkind. Lawn signs proclaimed the neighborhood to be a “predator-free zone,” declared that “women are not prey,” and warned johns to “keep out.” CNO representatives invited interested residents to sign up to participate in neighborhood foot patrols.
Minneapolis has had a turbulent history with prostitution. Just 10 years ago, the Christian Science Monitor described a downtown bustling commercial-sex scene composed of “six warehouse-size strip clubs, one peep show, two saunas, and two large adult book/video stores–all in a 12-block radius.” In 1999, a committee chaired by former Minneapolis mayor Al Hofstede described how Levron and Johnny Lee Evans, operating out of the Twin Cities metro area, built a call-girl empire that covered 24 states. The report also described how the Mall of America, in Bloomington, and the City Center, in downtown Minneapolis, were targeted by pimps looking to recruit young women. An April 2002 article in The Minnesota Daily described how the Powderhorn Park area consistently recorded the highest concentration of prostitution arrests in Minneapolis. The article described the same kinds of problems reported by residents of the Corcoran neighborhood: women being solicited while walking to their homes, unfamiliar cars cruising the area, and condoms and needles strewn along the sidewalk and in gutters.
Minnesota statute (under which all state and municipal solicitation violations are prosecuted) provides for a fine of up to $3,000 and a jail term of up to a year for anyone who “solicits or accepts a solicitation to engage … in sexual penetration while in a public place.” Yet as Scott Christenson pointed out, a successful case depends as much upon the circumstances of the encounter between prostitute and customer, as on where the encounter occurs. “A police officer coming upon two people having sex in a parked car would not be able to prove that money was involved,” he said. As a result, prostitution convictions derive almost wholly from stings involving undercover decoys.
But with the Minneapolis police force numbering at least 120 fewer officers than five years ago, such stings have decreased. City records show that over the first four months of this year 80 women were charged with prostitution, and 24 men were charged with solicitation. Over the first four months of 2005, 143 women were charged with prostitution, and 73 men were charged with solicitation. The contrast reveals a police force thinned by budget cuts, and stretched by competing challenges. It also shows that the battle against prostitution tends to strike women more harshly than men.
“That [discrepancy] does not make me very happy,” says Linda Kolkind. “It’s cheaper for the police to set up a sting for women. It’s more expensive to arrest johns because it requires more resources—more police, more cars. Women are more visible, and they have less money to fight the charges.” A resident of the Powderhorn Neighborhood, and a veteran of South Minneapolis battles against prostitution, Kolkind is no stranger to taking the fight to the street. In 1992, she outfitted a van with a video camera and staked out a number of area spas and saunas. She discovered that the most effective way to target prostitution is to go after the johns: when the camera is turned on, they tend to disappear.
Corcoran residents who have expressed a willingness to participate in regular neighborhood foot-patrols will soon undergo a training session with the Third Precinct’s Karen Skrivseth. They will be outfitted in special clothing, and will be instructed on the best way to videotape encounters between streetwalkers and their customers. They will also have access to blank affidavits that will allow them to assist the courts in its effort to prosecute johns. The objective of the patrol is not to instigate a potentially dangerous confrontation, such as what happened with Sara Blanch’s husband. Rather, with the support of the Minneapolis Police, the participants would like neighborhood visitors to know that they are being watched. “The more eyes and ears we have out in the community the better,” says Skrivseth. “If you can increase neighborhood visibility, you increase effectiveness.” Patrol members who spot someone soliciting a prostitute from a car will pass the license plate information to the police. The police will then send a letter to the vehicle’s registered owner. It is a small advance in the battle, but considering the breadth of the problem, it is a relief to those beleaguered Corcoran residents who would like to be able to enjoy the peace and serenity of their own neighborhood.
Treatment programs that work
For many years, Minnesota courts addressed prostitution as an incidental matter, dosing malefactors with gradually escalating fines and jail time. But the medicine satisfied no one—not women, not their advocates, not the penal system—and in 1999 the state of Minnesota appropriated $600,000 to fund and operate the Women’s Recovery Center (WRC).
Located in Shoreview, and operated by the Volunteers of America, the center’s primary objective is to help women free themselves of the underlying cause of prostitution—drug addiction. “[Jail] inmates who had been repetitively committed for engaging in prostitution were committed for drug possession … and were themselves drug users,” VOA director Bill Nelson told a Washington, D.C., congressional panel in February. “[It] became obvious that drugs and prostitution were co-occurring phenomena.”
But the mission of the Women’s Recovery Center is much more expansive than drug treatment. The only program of its kind in the world, it succeeds by recognizing that women involved in prostitution face related challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide and depression. “Prostituted women and children live lives of unlimited exposure,” former WRC program manager Kelly Holsopple wrote in a 2000 article published in the Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies. “They [face] disease, drugs and alcohol, homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, malnutrition, murder, physical abuse, sexual abuse, sleep deprivation, torture, verbal harassment, and weather. Women and children suffer physical, social, emotional, and psychological damage from being prostituted day after day and year after year.”
WRC staff understand that women do not respond to treatment the same way that men do, and so have devised innovative ways to meet the challenge. “Unlike men, women acknowledge their powerlessness,” said Nelson. “We had women writing letters—very emotional, powerful letters—to their drug as if it was a person with whom they were locked in a relationship. They make statements that acknowledge things like ‘friendships,’ and say that the relationship is over and the drug will have to go.”
The center also helps program participants develop work skills long eroded by a life spent on society’s margins. Many women coming off the street have no ID, no verifiable employment history, none of the documentation required to secure a legitimate job. “Women often remain in prostitution for economic reasons,” said WRC liaison Vicky Smiley. “If you take a regular job, you have to wait two weeks or a month for your first paycheck to arrive. If you’re on drugs, and you have two or three babies to support, you need to have money right now, not in a month.”
The WRC spends approximately $120 per person per day to administer its regimen versus about $75 per person per day spent by most jails. But Bill Nelson argues that that is a comparison between apples and oranges. “[The center] is more than advocacy, housing and clothing,” he said. Women coming out of jail with no treatment, no aftercare, no established support system are looking at a death sentence. “Five years is a lifetime for women in prostitution,” he said. “Over five years, the combination of drugs and prostitution is terminal.”
Like any program that addresses addiction, the Women’s Recovery Center must deal with cycles of success and failure, often involving the same person. “It is not unusual for women to come into the program and then leave and go back to the streets,” said Vicky Smiley. “They go back to drugs and to drinking, because to them medication is more important than recovery. Recovery means excavating, digging up a lot of things. It’s hard. A lot of women have been caretaking and catering to men for so long that they don’t feel it is right for them. Then, there are women who would like to get off the streets and off drugs, but they say, ‘not right now, I want to get high.’” Smiley survived her own bout with prostitution and drug abuse, and she recognizes the hurdles faced by women who seek out her help. “I know what it feels like to be isolated,” she said. “I always say to them, ‘when you are ready, I am here.’”
Midtown Community Restorative Justice is a nonprofit program designed to bring criminal offenders face-to-face with the residents of the neighborhoods and communities where the offenses occurred. Defen-dants (clients) who participate in MCRJ are referred by the Hennepin County Court system, and must meet several criteria: They must first plead guilty; their crime must be nonviolent; and they must agree to pay all costs associated with the program. Men arrested for soliciting a prostitute in the Powderhorn or Corcoran Neighbor-hood would be referred to MCRJ (so long as they did not have a prior arrest for soliciting). Once the client has completed his obligation, his guilty plea is expunged.
The concept of restorative justice is based upon the notion of accountability, but with a twist. According to Ted Wachtel, President of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, in Bethlehem, Pa., “Human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.” The Centre for Restorative Justice, at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, believes that the greatest difference between traditional punishment and restorative justice is the focus upon the victim, rather than punishment of the offender. “It is more than a way to fine-tune the criminal justice system,” reads a statement on the school’s webpage. “It is an attempt to recover justice as a central concern of victims, offenders and the community.”
Midtown Community Restorative Justice is based in the Hennepin-Powderhorn Partners building at 1201 East Lake Street. The program shares space with several county and city agencies, and is coordinated by Cyndi Butler. Panel members—the individuals who actually confront the offender—are drawn from a roster of volunteers who are screened, and who must undergo a training session before they are allowed to participate. “[The sessions] are not about punishment,” said Butler. “We don’t want someone who is determined to teach the criminal a lesson.” Included in the training are segments on role-playing, “cultural sensitivity,” and “active listening.” Volunteers must sign a contract agreeing to maintain confidentiality.
Once the client agrees to plead guilty, and is referred to MCRJ, he too must sign a contract. Depending upon the nature and scope of his crime, he may be asked to complete a range of objectives that could include public service, an essay, marriage counseling and financial amends. He may be required to watch a video shot by Linda Kolkind; he may also be referred to Project Pathfinder, an organization that counsels and treats men who exhibit sexually compulsive behavior. “The contract is individualized to meet the needs of the client, but based on the point system so it’s fair for everyone,” said Butler. “Not all clients will do all the different pieces available on the contract. [But] they do have to complete everything that is included on their individual contract. Once it’s filled out, it is signed by everyone and is considered a binding contract between the panel members and the client. Any changes have to be approved by the panel and the client.”
The vast majority of men referred to MCRJ have been arrested for soliciting prostitutes. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge. For the volunteers on the panel, meeting the person responsible for disrupting their lives can be therapeutic. “The panel talks about the community effect of the crime,” said Butler. “In the case of prostitution, it might be how they are tired of finding condoms in their yard, or how they worry about what their grandchild has seen, or about the harassment they experience.”
For the clients, the main hurdle is acknowledging their crime; for some men, the hurdle is actually admitting that a crime has taken place. “Some of the clients do not see [prostitution] as a big deal,” Butler said. “They think of it as a victimless crime.” A client who admits guilt to the court, but who denies guilt to the panel is dismissed from the program and is sent back to the prosecutor’s office. Such incidents are rare, however. “Most of the men who go through the program are cooperative,” said Butler. Butler has not yet had a chance to examine incidents of recidivism, but she believes that such occurrences “are very low.” “It is a chance for them to explore their crime, and to relate to the people in the neighborhood where they were arrested,” she said. “Most are grateful and feel good about what they have accomplished.”
For information about Midtown Community Restorative Justice, contact program coordinator Cyndi Butler at 612-728-7506, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Assistant Minneapolis city attorney Scott Christenson can be reached at 612-673-2662.
The Women’s Recovery Center is a 24-bed chemical treatment program located in Shoreview. For more information, call 651-484-7840, or 612-721-6327.