Sometimes the criminal justice system fails to perform its most fundamental tasks: Punish the criminal and rescue the victim. Too often, when the police and the courts encounter women who have been sexually trafficked, the woman is treated as a criminal.
This mindset saddles an exploited woman with a criminal record and pushes her deeper into the clutches of a pimp by eliminating options and crushing hope. If the woman doesn’t have a pathway out — and a support structure to encourage and not denigrate — then she most likely will become another soul lost to a monstrous destroyer of lives and communities.
And, as it has done to so much of life, COVID-19 complicated efforts to help women caught in the sex trade. Responding to public health concerns about large jail populations, the Dallas County district attorney’s office rejected cases, which unfortunately sent women back into the arms of their abusers.
This week, Dallas Morning News columnist Sharon Grigsby pulled back the curtain on this deadly dynamic and spotlighted a new program in the district attorney’s office to help victims of sexual trafficking get a fresh beginning.
The program treats victimized women with respect and provides options they otherwise would not have. Instead of immediate prosecution on misdemeanor or felony prostitution charges, women are offered a pretrial intervention agreement. If they accept that and adhere to certain requirement such as holding a job outside of the sex industry for at least 30 days, their charges could be dismissed and expunged from their record. And offering support along the way is New Friends, New Life, a nonprofit that works to rescue victims of sex trafficking and provide rehabilitation services.
In many ways, this program tracks Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot’s belief in restorative criminal justice initiatives. In the late 1990s, Creuzot instituted the county’s first drug court, and after his election to district attorney in 2018, made policy changes that included not prosecuting certain first-time marijuana possession cases and diverting some offenders to drug treatment.
It takes courage for an embattled woman to turn away from the destructive and dehumanizing existence in the sex trade and communitywide commitments to snap the shackles of modern slavery. Freedom from this oppression requires an opportunity for financial stability, safe housing, aggressive prosecution of pimps and the emotional support of people committed to the best interests of women.
We’ve supported other initiatives to change the paradigm of combating the scourge of sex trafficking. For example, the Dallas Police Department’s revamping of its vice unit and changing its strategy to focus on arresting pimps and traffickers while working to help the women being sold for sex find a path out of the degrading life were laudable steps. The governor’s pardon of a trafficking victim this year and his creation of a new process for trafficking and domestic violence victims seeking clemency has also helped change the narrative on this crime. Similarly the state’s attorney general has led on this issue, as has the U.S. attorney for North Texas, Erin Nealy Cox.
There is a change taking place in how this crime is viewed and how society combats it, and North Texas is both a center for trafficking and a hub of good ideas bubbling up to address the issue.
Creuzot is leading here as well. We applaud the district attorney’s office for a thoughtful program and a committed team that treats sex workers as victims in need of support and resources. It is the right approach to protect victims and offer them a way out of the abyss.
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