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On locking up prostitutes

It doesn’t make much sense.

Busted 32 times in 17 years for prostitution in Austin and other places, Beatryce Hall’s rap sheet reads like a frequent-flier ticket for Texas prisons: 11 times in 11 years.

Many of those trips were courtesy of a 2001 Texas law that allowed prosecutors to charge prostitutes with a felony and send them to a state lockup after three misdemeanor prostitution convictions. The law was designed to clear up chronic problems with truck-stop and street hookers in Dallas.

But now, with more than 350 prostitutes — most from Houston and Dallas — occupying bunks in the state prison system, and dozens more serving time for drug and theft charges related to the sex trade, questions are being raised about whether the enhanced criminal charge is a waste of money. For about one-fourth the cost, such nonviolent, low-level criminals could be rehabilitated in community-based programs aimed at curing their addictions to alcohol and drugs.

At a time when state officials are looking to save money wherever they can and be smarter on crime, the issue is expected to be on the agenda when the Legislature convenes again in January — another example of Texas’ push for additional treatment and rehabilitation programs that began five years ago and has helped drive a decline in the state’s prison population.

“I thought life was a big party,” said Hall, 42, a mother of two daughters. “I started out dancing, got on drugs, went to the streets where I could make $300-400 a night. I wanted to, but couldn’t get out of that cycle.”

With just more than two months left on her latest less-than-a-year sentence at Plane State Jail in Southeast Texas, Hall plans to get out and stay out — thanks to a prison program started last January to help prostitutes beat their old habits.

State leaders say the program illustrates why prostitutes should never have been sentenced to prison in the first place. It costs $18,538 to house a convict in state prison for a year and about $15,500 in a lower-security state jail, according to Legislative Budget Board calculations. By contrast, a community-based program costs about $4,300 a year.

“She’s a perfect example of why these women should not be taking up expensive prison beds,” said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, who said that the 2001 felony prostitution law had broad support at the time and acknowledged that he voted for it.

“It’s nuts that we’ve got this many prostitutes in prison, people that we’re not afraid of, but we’re just mad at,” he said. “By locking them up, we’re not fixing the problem — we’re just spending a lot of money incarcerating them, warehousing them, when we could be spending a lot less getting them treatment so they can get out and stay out of this business.”

As the story notes, few other states imprison prostitutes as Texas does. The 2001 enhancement law was a misguided “get tuff on crime” attempt that has since proven to be shortsighted and needlessly expensive. Treating prostitutes in the same fashion as drug users and getting them into rehab to break the cycle of addiction and abuse is less expensive, more effective, and a whole lot more humane. Texas has taken some good steps in recent years to de-emphasize incarceration. Let’s hope the Lege takes this step in the upcoming session. Grits has more.

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