Chicago Tribune: Prostitution court opens in Cook County

January 17, 2011

By Serena Maria Daniels, Tribune reporter

Despite dozens of arrests while working the West Side as a street prostitute, Leeanna Majors says she usually spent no more than a few days at a time in custody.

Time after time, she quickly returned to West Madison Street to continue to sell her body for money.

“I wasn’t given any options, so I stayed with the ones that I had,” said Majors, now 56, who only quit the trade five years ago after more than three decades on the streets.

Now Cook County court officials hope a new pilot program will help some longtime prostitutes get the help they need to get off the streets — and stay off.

At first, a limited number of women will be offered treatment and counseling as part of an intensive months-long effort, much as courts have done in recent years for drug addicts, the mentally ill and military veterans who have committed crimes.

The once-a-week courtroom opens its doors Friday in the Criminal Courts Building to 25 women who have a long history of arrests and are currently charged with felony prostitution.

“She has to want to change her life,” Associate Judge Rosemary Grant Higgins, who will be heading the specialized court, said of the women.

Those who opt to take part will plead guilty to the felony charge, be sentenced to 2 years of probation and sign a contract promising to complete whatever treatment and social services experts believe are needed to end their ties to prostitution.

The women will be jailed for at least 90 days while they are evaluated for drug, alcohol or other problems and given a chance to stabilize from substance abuse or emotional trauma.

“A lot of them come to us so sick,” said Debbie Boecker, executive director of the sheriff’s Women’s Justice Services treatment facility at Cook County Jail.

Depending on the extent of the problems, the women might go to inpatient facilities outside of jail for more intensive treatment or be placed in subsidized housing for at least a year “to get away from the trade,” Higgins said.

The women can also receive assistance with education, job counseling, health care needs, child custody and other issues.

In addition, the women will be matched up with former prostitutes who will serve as mentors and share how they were able to leave the business.

Officials said the specialized court shouldn’t add to county expenses because they plan to staff the courtroom with prosecutors, public defenders and probation and sheriff’s officials already assigned to the courthouse, and the many services would be provided by existing nonprofit organizations.

Court officials hope the pilot project might someday replace the revolving-door system that most prostitutes experience, sometimes for years.

Currently, many prostitutes amass several pages of arrests on their rap sheets before they might be charged with a felony offense — and even then they often serve very little time in prison, according to court officials.

According to records supplied by the Circuit Court, about 3,900 suspects — the vast majority women — were convicted of felony prostitution offenses over the last decade. An analysis of the records by the Tribune shows the offenders were 35 years old on average.

Women in the sex trade often share a common background.

Many were physically or sexually abused in their youth, addicted to drugs or turned to prostitution because of homelessness, said Jody Raphael, a senior research fellow at DePaul University College of Law who has interviewed Chicago prostitutes and pimps for research into the sex business.