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Philadelphia launches 'johns' diversion program

Three years ago, the courts and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office began a pretrial diversion program for prostitutes offering counseling to help get off the streets.

Three years ago, the courts and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office began a pretrial diversion program for prostitutes offering counseling to help get off the streets.

This month, courts and prosecutors moved beyond the world's oldest profession to the world's oldest customer base: johns.

They called the effort SER, Sexual Education and Responsibility, and its inaugural class of 15 men completed a four-hour session May 10 at Joseph J. Peters Institute, a Center City clinic that specializes in treating sex offenders and the sexually abused.

The men completed the class, which costs $250, and were given a court date where they will plea guilty to misdemeanor patronizing and pay $203 in court costs. If their vehicles were impounded when they were arrested, they will get them back. And first-time offenders can get their arrest record expunged.

If SER doesn't have the ring of "johns class," there's a reason.

"We don't use the word johns. There's a stigma to it," said Municipal Court President Judge Marsha H. Neifield. Furthermore, the point of the program is to encourage men to think about how they are part of a social problem, and not just buyers in a free market.

Peter Simonsson, director of Trauma Survivor Services at Peters Institute, said he was impressed by the men's attention and engagement.

"At one point we were showing slides and one man," Simonsson said, "actually started crying and said, 'I'm part of this.' "

Neifield said she began thinking about the issue after attending a conference on human trafficking last year at Villanova University.

"We always knew we were missing a piece," Neifield said. "We were addressing the issue of the women, but we weren't doing anything to diminish demand."

And demand is increasing.

Assistant District Attorney Derek Riker, chief of the Diversion Courts Unit, said that last year police arrested 217 men and 994 women for prostitution.

This year, based on the last two months, about 300 men will be arrested, Riker said. Five years ago, fewer than 100 johns were arrested.

Before SER, men arrested for patronizing prostitution were eligible for the city's major diversion program: Accelerated Misdemeanor Program (AMP), which disposes of minor criminal cases by having arrestees perform community service.

Riker said people in the program typically do work related to their offense: "People arrested for graffiti removed graffiti."

With prostitution, that option does not exist.

"You know, going to work at the food bank is great and all, but it's not really addressing what led you to go out on the street," Riker said. "We wanted to try to get to the root causes of why they're doing what they're doing, try to give them information about the consequences of their actions, both legally and personally."

Programs addressing the demand side of prostitution began in the early 1990s in Grand Rapids, Mich., and St. Paul, Minn., with education programming and treatment for arrested men.

Riker said when he began planning SER, he turned to Brooklyn, N.Y., where the Kings County District Attorney's Office has had such a program since 2002.

Brooklyn program administrator Evan Benigno said the classes average 40 to 50 men who hear from a prosecutor, a therapist, and a former prostitute.

"It's really a rude awakening for a lot of these johns," Benigno said, adding that the program's recidivism rate is less than 1 percent.

Riker said Philadelphia's program focuses on male rationalizations for patronizing prostitution.

First, it's not a victimless crime, and you're not helping out a poor woman with extra money, Riker said.

Most prostitutes are victims of childhood sexual abuse and suffer from mental illness and drug and alcohol problems, he said.

The clients, on the other hand, face the additional risk of being victimized.

"Many of these guys don't think that some of these women have pimps. The possibility of getting robbed is very, very real," Riker said.

When the body of Francis Zarzycki, 40, of Northeast Philadelphia, was found in the Schuylkill on Sept. 3, police followed leads to a Center City apartment. There to meet two prostitutes, Zarzycki was ambushed by their pimp and killed during a robbery. One prostitute pleaded guilty; the others are awaiting trial.

The first SER class, Riker said, exceeded expectations: "All 15 showed up and all showed up early."

Demand could be higher than expected. A day before the first class, Philadelphia police announced arrests of 34 men for patronizing prostitutes between April 28 and May 2.

215-854-2985 215-854-2985 @joeslobo