Tarrant diversion program gives prostitutes chance to start over

Posted Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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By the numbers Since the Tarrant County RISE Program began in 2010: 109: referred to the program 32: accepted by the program 11: terminated from the program 21: are active in the program 60: denied, refused or pleaded out of the program 17: cases being reviewed RISE program data • Average age of participant: 34 • Average days in confinement during a five-year period: 1,200 • Average number of convictions during a five-year period: four felonies, three misdemeanors
New Texas law calls for urban prostitution prevention programs Counties with populations exceeding 200,000 must establish a prostitution prevention program if it is affordable. Tarrant and Dallas counties are the only counties that comply with the law, which took effect Sept. 1. 22 Texas counties are eligible to apply for prostitution prevention grant funding starting at $10,000 annually.

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Jhonda Jones says prostitution provided a way for her to get even.

Triggered by a childhood filled with sexual assault and abuse by strangers and family members, Jones says being paid for sex allowed her to be compensated when her husband traded her to his friends for favors.

“It was a way to get back at men and take their money,” Jones said.

By the time Jones enrolled in the Reaching Independence through Successful Empowerment (RISE) diversion program in August 2011, she said the pain she carried inside made her physically ill.

“When I started with the program, I could not like or trust myself,” Jones said. “I would come home not even knowing how I got home. I’d wake up in different places, under the bridge, in cars, in different motels, not knowing how I got there. I did just about anything I could to make a hustle.”

The RISE program was created in 2010 by state District Judge Brent Carr, who said he was tired of watching the endless parade of prostitutes who filled his courtroom. Before RISE, nothing ever changed in their lives and no one offered the women a chance to rehabilitate, Carr said.

“They’d almost all been to the state penitentiary, they are almost all drug addicts, and they all have some mental challenges,” Carr said. “We would call almost all of them victims.”

RISE provides housing, education, job training and employment to career prostitutes. Women who are accepted into the program are offered the opportunity to address the underlying causes of their drug, mental health and economic issues with long-term therapy and supervision seldom made available in jails, prisons or community treatment programs.

Jones is one of 109 women who have been referred to Tarrant County’s RISE program. A professed alcoholic, she has been in the program for two years and has been sober for a year and two months. She said she is finally at peace with herself.

“You want to be thought of as doing good,” Jones said during a videotaped interview. “The people running the program have taught us to love ourselves again because they give us love.”

RISE participants typically are in their 40s or 50s. Carr said it’s difficult to get younger women interested in the diversion program because they’d rather go to jail. After an initial arrest, prostitutes generally are sentenced to 10 days in jail with time served, a slap on the wrist many prefer over the two years of introspection and hard work necessary to complete RISE.

All of the women in RISE have been to jail at least three times, Carr said. Police arrested Jones nine times since 2000, court records show. About half were prostitution arrests, and the others were for assault, theft, drunken driving, driving with a suspended license and possession of a controlled substance.

Offenders with any history of violence are not considered for the program. About 90 percent of RISE participants have a mental illness diagnosis, Carr said. Those who are not diagnosed are often suffering from conditions such as depression and post traumatic stress disorder. If accepted, the women get probation instead of prison, and participation in RISE is a condition of their probation.

Some women don’t make it.

“The biggest group of people we lose drop out within six months,” Carr said. “Some can’t stay away from drugs. Some get frustrated and can’t take the structure. We’ve had a couple who have just rebelled.”

Each RISE probationer gets a team made up of social workers, attorneys, probation officers and Carr, who guide the women through the program. The goal is making participants self-sufficient, Carr said.

After three years, two women are set to graduate and three have returned to self-sufficiency, Carr said.

“If we can get them positively engaged, get them back to school — a couple have gotten their GEDs — if we can get them out past that first year part, I like my chances,” Carr said. “As with most of the people we encounter, many will need case management for the rest of their lives. I will be with every one of these women for three years or more.”

Advocates say prostitution prevention programs are cost effective. The revolving door of prostitution, arrest and then jail time is economically inefficient, said Linda Collins, RISE program manager. Imprisoning someone with mental health issues cost about $137 a day compared to an estimated probation cost of about $2 a day, Collins said.

Housing is the biggest barrier to expanding the program, Collins said. Of the 21 women in the program, two are in jail and one is in a rehabilitation program.

“We don’t know where we’re going to put them when they get out,” Collins said. “And the 21 people we have in the program now is just a drop in a huge bucket.”

Diversion courts give judges, attorneys and healthcare personnel the ability to become familiar with the issues facing certain populations and focus on those issues, said Joan Rycraft, a retired University of Texas Arlington social work professor who has studied the program.

“The word has to get out that this is something worthwhile,” Rycraft said. “Giving a woman who has been living on the streets some options is much better than throwing her in jail.”

At 49, Tina Clemons had been arrested 29 times in 29 years — 23 times for prostitution, three times for drugs, and once for robbery, evading arrest and detention and criminal trespass.

Her dysfunction had all the typical hallmarks. Clemons said she was sexually molested at 11 by a relative who was convicted for the crime and died in prison. She raised her two younger brothers until she was 13, then ran away from home in Maypearl to Fort Worth, where she was raped.

After the rape, Clemons said, she started using drugs.

“When you go down Lancaster or anyplace there is prostitution, I can look and say that was me,” Clemons said.

She said her life changed in 2010 when she enrolled in the RISE program. Now she is a community college student and has resumed contact with her 17-year-old son. She has been drug-free for three years and has her own apartment.

Six months ago, Clemons was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She said she’s OK with the diagnosis now, but before RISE, death would have come too soon.

“I almost gave up,” Clemons said. “I was going to continue to drink, use crack. My mom passed away four years ago, and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to her because I was in jail.

“My son would ask me when was I coming home, but I couldn’t come home and let him see me like this. My son didn’t have anything good to say about his mom. Before, I couldn’t die. ”

“But I’m in college now. I feel good in my own apartment. I’m clean. I’m proud of who I am.”

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752 Twitter: @mitchmitchel3

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