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Prostitution court falling short of county expectations

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt on Tuesday revealed that a justice program aimed at helping residents charged with prostitution is falling short of expectations.

“Relying on the criminal and civil justice system to boot-strap these individuals who are in such serious need is simply not enough,” Eckhardt said during a Commissioners Court discussion of two items related to the Phoenix Court.

The program is administered by Travis County Counseling and Education Services. It seeks to divert from the jail system individuals caught up in the sex trade. Participants can scrub charges from their records by participating in mental health and substance abuse programs.

According to the program’s website, “It gives the defendant the opportunity to make their life more manageable through support and direction of a trained and experienced Court and case management team.”

The Phoenix Court was one of 12 programs that lost funding in February when Gov. Greg Abbott hacked $1.5 million in state grants to the county in response to Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s new policy of refusing most federal immigration detainer requests at the county jail.

In May, county Planning and Budget Office staff were able to pull together enough money in the current budget to keep streamlined versions of the programs in operation. The primary matter of controversy before the court on Tuesday were two separate budget transfers of $41,535 from the County Attorney’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office to cover Phoenix Court costs.

The fact that county taxpayer money is now in play seemed to be behind Commissioner Gerald Daugherty’s request to pull the item off the consent agenda for discussion. He repeatedly affirmed his sympathy for the participants in the program but also suggested the Phoenix Court is incomplete in its approach to the problem of prostitution. To truly address the issue, he argued, pimps must be targeted.

“Print a banner across Fifth Street west of Lamar, you know, and not talk about the tricycle race that’s going to happen this week,” he offered, making a reference to charity events promoted on over-the-street banners hung on prominent streets by Austin Energy. “Put the damn banner up and say we are going after the pimps in this community and we are going to come after you and we’re going to throw away the key on you.”

County Attorney David Escamilla concurred with Daugherty and added, “What we’ve left out are the johns. There wouldn’t be a need for the services but for the clientele, the consumers. And we have pushed hard on the johns, and I have taken a lot of hell for that, but we’re going to continue to do that as well.”

Commissioner Jeff Travillion countered that poverty is a driving cause of prostitution. Increasing access to education, providing more after-school programs and enhancing job opportunities in high-risk communities would reduce the appeal of prostitution and pimping, he argued.

“And until we start creating safe spaces to reclaim people and give them access to real work that will provide them stability in their own communities, we can chase Huggy Bear and every other pimp down that we want to. Until we start dealing with poverty, we’re not addressing the problem,” said Travillion.

As for the Phoenix Court itself, Eckhardt said the county will need to “take a deeper dive” to figure out how to better help the program’s participants. Roger Jefferies, the county executive for justice planning, noted that the draft budget for Fiscal Year 2017-2018 includes money for “an outside evaluator for the program.”

In the meantime, the court unanimously approved the two Phoenix Court budget transfers.

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