Forced into sex, then victimized by the system
A new state law aims to protect women after they have become prostitutes andvictims of sex-trafficking.
EVERY TIME she tried to escape from the violent grip of her pimp, Michelle's life was on the line. Once when she fled, the man stalked her and her family, threatening to kill her kids and her mother if she didn't return to selling her body for his benefit, earning him up to $2,500 a night.
Other times, Michelle said, the punishment for her and other women who tried to get out of the sick underworld of sex slavery was a beating.
"If you ran away, [there was] this place we would go in North Philly. They would handcuff you to this basement sink and just beat you," Michelle, 53, told the Daily News. The mother of three grown children asked that her last name be withheld for her and her family's safety: Almost two decades later, with her pimp never prosecuted for his sex-slave enterprise, Michelle still lives in fear that he will find her and drag her back into that world.
When she finally escaped, Michelle said, she felt as if her life had been saved.
But like countless other women sold into sex slavery in Philadelphia and beyond, Michelle didn't know then that 15 years later she still would be forced to pay for the time she spent in that life.
Because of a system that experts say criminalizes the very women it should protect, the shackles placed on women in that dark world of violence and drug addiction aren't easy to escape, even after they flee their pimps and start new lives.
Even though her pimp used threats and violence to force her and other women to sell their bodies and pay him the profits night after night, Michelle was convicted of prostitution charges. Her arrest record dogs her, making it tough to land a stable job and lead a normal life.
"It carries a stigma," Michelle said as she sat in an office at the Defender Association of Philadelphia on a recent morning.
"We carry that guilt."
Begging for help
Michelle is by far not the only woman who has survived being pimped and sold for sex, only to find that once she got her life back on track, her record and the costs associated with it would continue to haunt her.
Brendale McAfee and Ann Marie Jones, two women who each spent more than a decade working the streets to support crack habits, also found themselves trapped in that very cycle. Both women said that repeatedly being arrested, jailed and given probation had little effect on helping them to get out of that life.
"I was never asked if [I wanted] help until the very end," said Jones, who was arrested for prostitution 51 times over a 13-year span and spent several of those years being forced to sell herself by a pimp who routinely beat her and took all the money she made.
"There was nobody ever at the other side of that door to say, 'Can we help you?' So I only went back to what I knew, and I kept going back," she said. "The drugs were a major part of it."
Jones, 47, is now a peer specialist at Dawn's Place, a residential treatment program for sexually exploited women that she credits with saving her life.
McAfee, 58, another graduate of Dawn's Place, said it took being held captive, raped, tortured and nearly killed by a man whose house she used as a brothel to finally convince her to make changes. But being locked up more times than she can recall did not.
"If I hadn't been involved with nearly losing my life, I probably would be still out there," McAfee said. "That last run of mine was really my wake-up call, because I almost really lost my life because of the things the guy did to me. He raped me, he tried to take my eyes out, he poured bleach on me, he beat me with a hammer, he cut my face."
As if that ordeal weren't bad enough, McAfee is in the same predicament as Michelle: She's been drug-free and off the streets since 2010, but her record makes getting a job and just living tough.
McAfee said the system's first reaction to women selling sex should be to offer help, not punishment. When police rescued her from her abuser and she finally got the help she needed, her life was saved, she said.
"[I wish] that they wouldn't entrap the women that's out there," she said. "If they're going to help them, they're going to help them. But why entrap them?"
Mary DeFusco, a public defender for more than three decades, said the number of women prosecuted for prostitution who were forced into it by pimps using violence and drug addiction to maintain control is alarming.
In 2010, DeFusco helped to launch the city's Project Dawn Court, a diversionary court that offers alternative treatment and programs instead of the usual jail and probation terms - which former prostitutes and legal experts say don't work - for women with repeat prostitution convictions.
On a recent morning, DeFusco sat at her desk, thumbing through a thick stack of police reports and paperwork related to dozens of prostitution cases.
She read aloud excerpts from several cases that she said illustrate the fact that many women arrested for selling sex likely are victims of sex trafficking, forced by a pimp to do so.
In one case, inside a seedy Roosevelt Boulevard "no-tell hotel," she read from a police document: "The . . . male stops and says to the cop, 'Take it easy on my shorty,' Then discusses price with the cop," DeFusco read from the paperwork.
"The backup team then comes in, and they arrest the 18-year-old girl for prostitution," she continued. "How can you miss a guy who says, 'Take care of my shorty,' and talks price?"
In another case, DeFusco said, an assistant district attorney noted on the file that the woman charged with prostitution is a suspected victim of sex trafficking. That prosecution, DeFusco said, appears to be moving forward despite the ADA's telling notation. "No one has asked her for anything about her pimp," she said.
In yet another more egregious example, DeFusco said, one victim of a federally convicted sex trafficker is still facing local prostitution charges.
"If you're trapped in prostitution, it doesn't make sense. Why in God's name are we charging this person with a crime?" she asked.
With state legislation that went into effect last Friday, there is newfound hope for women like Michelle, Jones and McAfee who are caught up in the dark world of prostitution.
Act 105 has expanded the state statute on human trafficking, better defining the crime and making both sex trafficking and labor trafficking second-degree felonies - or first-degree, if minors or bodily injury are involved. The much-anticipated law, prosecutors said, will make it easier for them to pursue sex-trafficking cases at the local level because it includes more specific descriptions of what constitutes sex trafficking.
"It allows us to prosecute on a broader base to actually go at this particular crime," said James Carpenter, chief of the District Attorney's Office Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit.
The law also provides better protections for survivors of sex trafficking, establishing their right to sue their traffickers, protecting their identities in court proceedings, giving them first consideration for diversionary programs like Project Dawn Court, and allowing those convicted of prostitution or related offenses while being sex-trafficked to petition to have the convictions vacated - even if their trafficker has not been criminally charged.
"We don't want to have them convicted for that," Carpenter said. "The idea going forward [is that] if you were coerced into this kind of conduct, the Legislature wanted to make the record clean [and] try to repair some of the damage."
Men who patronize sex-trafficking victims will also be harshly penalized. Now, buying sex knowingly from a woman being trafficked is a second-degree felony.
While the new law is encouraging for sex-trafficking survivors and the lawyers and law-enforcement officials who work with them, some experts cautioned that its implementation will be key to whether it has the intended effect.
The hope is that the law will help in catching and prosecuting the true criminals in sex-trafficking cases, rather than the women who are trapped.
"If law-enforcement officials can make them feel comfortable and make them feel safe and say your perpetrator is going to be held accountable, then we can direct them to resources and offer immunity," said Debasri Ghosh, director of education and communications for the advocacy group Women's Way. "Before, there was no way to hold them under the blanket."
Attacking the demand
Although experts say Act 105 is a step in the right direction, Pennsylvania still has some of the strictest penalties on the books for prostitution - especially for repeat offenders.
Women continually arrested in Philadelphia for prostitution and related offenses, like obstructing the highway or loitering, by and large, are simply slapped with probation and placed right back on the street. But state law dictates that they can face up to a year in jail after their first or second prostitution charge.
The penalties worsen after that: After three arrests, state law provides for up to two years in jail; for four or more prostitution arrests, women (and in rare cases, men) can face up to five years in prison.
Many other states are considerably more lenient. In New York, the maximum penalty for prostitution, a Class B misdemeanor, is up to three months in jail and/or a $500 fine. In New Jersey, although the penalties worsen with repeat offenses like in Pennsylvania, the maximum penalty, according to ProCon.org, an organization that aggregates information on social issues, is 18 months in jail and/or a fine.
"I shouldn't have to worry about 2 1/2 to 5 years for someone whose only victim, ever, is herself," DeFusco said.
DeFusco, other lawyers, women who have been exploited and arrested for prostitution, and even law-enforcement officers agree that penalties like jail time and probation don't do the trick because they don't get at the heart of the issues that put women on the street selling sex in the first place.
In the last year and a half, the Philadelphia Police Department's Citywide Vice Unit has placed a heavier emphasis on arresting johns - men caught soliciting prostitutes - rather than locking up the women selling sex.
"We made the decision because sometimes it's like a revolving door arresting the women. We arrest them and they're out the next day - sometimes the same day," said Lt. Derrick Wood, Vice's commanding officer. "It's more of a deterrent for guys and makes a bigger difference if we attack the demand."
In his two years in Vice, Wood said, he can recall only two instances in which officers arrested the same man twice for solicitation. The cops also have made it a point to confiscate cars and cash when they bust johns - and to blast their mug shots to the news media.
"I think that one time is enough to discourage them from doing it again," Wood said. "For the most part, if we get a guy once, we don't get him again. Doctors, lawyers, we've arrested city employees, all types of people."
Shea Rhodes, a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney who helped develop Project Dawn Court, said that approach is better than arresting women.
"If there wasn't a demand for sex, the pimps would go out of business," said Rhodes, who is active in Philadelphia's Anti-Trafficking Coalition and serves on the board at Dawn's Place. "There are scores of men out there every day buying sex, from every walk of life, every race, every ethnicity, every religion. But society isn't talking about that, and I think we need to."
Jones had a simple piece of advice about women caught up in the dark cycle of prostitution and drug addiction.
"They need somebody to help them get out of this lifestyle," she said. "We are human beings just like anybody else."