Because of a police pullback in response to COVID-19 and policy changes by District Attorney Larry Krasner, prosecutors have almost stopped bringing prostitution cases in Philadelphia.

Prosecutors filed only four such cases last year, official figures show. The year before Krasner took office, his predecessor, Seth Williams, charged 847 people with the same offense.

Like many changes in the criminal-justice system, this shift was greatly influenced by the pandemic. The virus prompted the Philadelphia Police Department to temporarily shut its 10-officer Citywide Vice Unit — the small squad responsible for enforcing prostitution laws — reassigning its officers to local districts amid an overall shortage of officers and the surge in shootings.

The unit only recently resumed its street-level enforcement, returning to its sweeps at the end of last year, the unit’s commander says.

COVID-19 hastened a trend already powered by a policy shift within the district attorney’s office. Krasner and his prosecutors have been frank about their decision not to pursue charges against sex workers, saying the cases deliver needless punishment and little deterrence without providing any permanent solutions. Prosecutors instead urge that sex workers be connected to services offered by nonprofits, notably a program run by the Salvation Army.

This shift has sparked debate. Court officials and some community leaders worry that loosening restrictions on sex work is a mistake, abandoning people to exploitation and drug use and dragging down the quality of neighborhood life. Advocates and some sex workers themselves say the de facto legalization hasn’t gone far enough and that more services should be made available without arrests, court oversight, or coercion.

Meanwhile, police officials say the activity on the street has remained steady, with little visible increase or decrease as a result of the falloff in arrests and cases.

Police Lt. Oronde Watson, the head of Citywide Vice, said officers in his unit, now fully staffed, have somewhat picked up the pace in making arrests this year. Still, the women know the charges are likely to be dropped, Watson said, as do the officers making the arrests.

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“It’s clear that they need help, and hopefully with them getting into the back of the police wagon, going to the district, and going through the process, a light will go off in their head,” he said, likening it to the “moment of clarity” some drug users face when deciding to become sober.

Since 2019, police have piloted a special program in which women taken into custody for prostitution are immediately offered social services in lieu of criminal charges. The program, known as Police Assisted Diversion, or PAD, connects willing participants with the Salvation Army’s New Day to Stop Trafficking program. Through New Day, women receive help from finding housing to guidance on how to get protection-from-abuse orders from partners who exploit them.

Last year, 273 women received services from New Day via PAD. It operates in just one of the city’s 21 police districts, the 25th in Kensington.

At the same time, some advocates lament the collapse of another, older diversionary program, known as Project Dawn Court, that has also provided help to women with multiple arrests for prostitution. Unlike New Day, Dawn Court requires women to regularly check in with court officials. If they don’t complete the program, the women are sentenced on the original prostitution charge.

Fewer arrests

The decline in prostitution cases is part of a larger trend since Krasner took office. In total, his prosecutors filed charges against nearly 23,000 defendants last year. That’s a 40% drop from the 38,600 people who faced charges in 2018. While caseloads have increased in some key areas — notably, in homicides and shootings — cases have fallen in many categories, led by drops in nonviolent property crimes.

Assistant District Attorney Mike Lee, Krasner’s chief of staff, said in a recent interview that the office has reexamined prostitution policies to take into account both the safety of the women involved and the impact on the city.

When the city was racking up hundreds of prostitution arrests each year — more than 1,100 cases were brought in 2014 under Williams — Lee said that the stigma around sex work was “driving women into the dark.” This opened them up to violence and abuse, victimizations they were reluctant to report given their involvement in sex work.

“We’re trying to strike a balance given the constraints of society and resources,” Lee said. “If the erotic labor was provided in a safe, secure setting as they do in Amsterdam or other jurisdictions, I think there’d be fewer public safety concerns.”

Lee noted that many sex workers shrug off arrests and return to the street. They often will return to the courthouse to face drug charges or other offenses, he said.

Yet, he said, repeatedly pushing women through a judicial revolving door has done little to curb sex work. Nor, he said, have law-enforcement crackdowns addressed the underlying issues leading some women to it.

“A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach doesn’t work when we’re trying to solve social issues,” Lee said. “The more options we have the better, because I think there are a number of people who would benefit, for example, from addressing substance-use first.”

Community leaders in areas where sex work is most prevalent — notably Kensington along its commercial corridors, and Hunting Park near its namesake green space — say they sympathize with those engaged in it. But they worry about its negative impact on neighborhoods.

Charles Lanier, executive director of the Hunting Park Neighborhood Advisory Committee, said he welcomed a move by the 25th Police District to station patrol cars near the park to discourage the activity there.

“It’s illegal, and this situation has a rippling effect on the community as a whole,” Lanier said. “A major spot for this is near Little Flower [Catholic High School For Girls]. What kind of image does that give our young women, looking up from their classroom window and seeing that?”

The pandemic hasn’t slowed sex work in Hunting Park, according to Lanier. And in fielding calls from residents, he frequently hears complaints about the drug sales and violence often associated with sex work. He cited the murder of Kiesha Jenkins, a transgender sex worker beaten to death by a group of men in the neighborhood in 2015.

“The police do their best, but I don’t know that there is a permanent solution to the problem to help these women,” Lanier said.

Meanwhile, some want sex work to be recognized as legitimate employment. One such advocate is Raani Begum, a sex worker and organizer of a group called the Red Umbrella Alliance. The organization, active in Philadelphia and South Jersey, takes its name from Europe, where some workers carried red umbrellas during protests. The group supports those in the sex trades and advocates on their behalf.

The alliance runs a weekly meeting at which sex workers discuss issues. Those that the group works with are disproportionately women of color and poor, Begum said. Many are trans and turn to sex work after facing discrimination or abuse trying to pursue other jobs.

A total decriminalization of prostitution would eliminate much of the danger they face, Begum said. Beyond police contact, which Begum said sex workers often find traumatic, convictions for prostitution can affect women’s lives for years, influencing, for instance, their custody of children or ability to find jobs.

“What is happening with these laws is that people are being harassed for being poor and trying to survive their acute poverty,” she said. “They’re not helping anyone.”

Begum said that diversionary programs that involve police or the courts miss the point: The services they offer should be freely available, and come without any oversight from the criminal-justice system.

A shrinking Project Dawn

Others in the city’s justice ecosystem, notably including Municipal Court President Judge Patrick Dugan, fear that the reduction in prostitution enforcement has had a paradoxical effect — undermining services, like Project Dawn Court, designed to help sex workers.

“I feel like we’re abandoning these ladies, we’re abandoning their families, and we’re abandoning their neighborhoods,” Dugan said in a recent interview “Who’s helping these ladies? I think we’re letting them wither to die on the street.”

Dugan’s lower-tier court system handles misdemeanors, the bulk of sex-crime cases. He said he worries that without charges, women involved in sex work won’t be connected with potentially life-changing services.

Under Dawn Court, begun in 2010, women with three or more prior convictions for prostitution will have their latest charges dropped after they complete a year-long battery of mental-health sessions, substance-abuse treatment, and trauma therapy.

So far, Dawn Court has helped 145 clients. But enrollment dwindled to just four in 2019. Admissions have been zero since 2020.

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“I’m not looking for people to be charged with any crime. That’s not my job. But I feel we’re leaving these people behind by not bringing them into Dawn Court,” Dugan said. “There’s not any program that’s able to get them these kinds of results besides having a judge pull them into a courtroom and connect them with these services.”

Dawn Court was once touted nationwide as an early example of a progressive shift in judicial policies. The program required clean living and a commitment to change and is individualized for each applicant, according to program coordinator Lesha Sanders.

Graduates have gone on to reclaim their children, buy homes, and reunite with their families after years on the street. Most clients have not been arrested since, according to Sanders.

“Typically when women engage in sex work, it’s not something they want to do. It’s something they do to survive, ” Sanders said. “Our approach is being nonjudgmental. It’s all about being trauma-informed and meeting them where they are and giving them the resources to become their best selves.”

But Lee said Dawn Court’s downturn was not driven by prosecution choices. Its enrollment had fallen before Krasner’s election, he noted. Women are declining to join, Lee said, saying the program seemed too coercive and the court’s supervision too lengthy.

Shea Rhodes, the director of Villanova University’s Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, helped create Dawn Court while working as an assistant district attorney under Williams. Rhodes, whose center was founded in 2015 to fight sex trafficking, said she wasn’t surprised that admissions had dropped.

“Why would you agree to be in court and go through a year-long process or longer if, instead, you can decline the offer and they’ll just drop the charges?” Rhodes asked. “Which one are you going to take?”

That said, Rhodes said she would not mourn the loss of the program, provided that its array of services were still made available to sex workers — and if prosecutors instead targeted “clients.” So far this year, prosecutions have charged 14 men with patronizing sex workers and six for promoting prostitution, according to figures from the district attorney’s public website.

In an interview, one Dawn Court graduate — Alexis, who asked that her full name not be used — said she had lost count of the horrors she dealt with during her decade as a sex worker. Being threatened with knives and guns, being pistol-whipped, spending nights half-asleep in abandoned buildings.

An abusive boyfriend led her to a heroin habit. He coerced her into sex work as a means of supporting them both and used violence to keep her hooked.

“After a while you become so numb, you don’t tell anyone anymore, because of the way people look at you and judge, as if you deserved everything you got,” she said. “I accepted that I was one of the girls who would die down there.”

After an arrest in 2014, though, she entered Dawn Court. Despites relapses, she stuck with it, encouraged by therapists and social workers who didn’t judge her. Now, she worries about the women who won’t get the help she received.

“When you get stuck in a black hole and get so broken and hopeless, you need someone to help build you up,” she said. “That program saved me. Who’s going to save them?”

This article was updated to note that women who do not complete the Project Dawn program then face sentencing on the original prostitution charges.