Thursday, May 15, 2003

Henri E. Cauvin
Staff Writer

p. B02.

City's prostitution court targets defendants for aid

Prostitution picks up every year around this time, as the weather gets warmer and the street corners beckon, and no one expects the problem to ever go away entirely.

But D.C. officials are hoping that a new court branch dedicated to hearing prostitution cases will go a long way toward dealing with the social ills that have made the vice such a persistent and nettlesome concern for neighborhoods throughout the District.

A prostitution docket will be put into place next month in D.C. Superior Court, officials said yesterday. They detailed their plans at a meeting of law enforcement officers and community leaders from neighborhoods such as Logan Circle.

That Northwest Washington community has been plagued for years by prostitution. With support from D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), residents have been among the most active in the city in pushing for a more agressive response.

The new court, which will be presided over by Judge Robert R. Rigsby, is meant to provide a more coordinated approach to dealing with the 120 or so arrests made each month by the D.C. police department's prostitution enforcement unit.

Rather than simply process people arrested for prostitution, Rigsby will try to determine what kinds of social services can be tapped to help women put prostitution behind them, officials said. He will get most, but not all, of the cases; some will continue to be heard by a judge who runs a special "community court" in the eastern part of the city. Rigsby will deal with prostitutes' customers, too.

Drug abuse, AIDS and other serious health problems are common among prostitutes, but rarely are those issues addressed when the cases come through the criminal justice system.

"I think it's the best news in addressing the prostitution problem that I've heard in 10 years," said Mary Brown, a board member of the Logan Circle Community Association who has lived in the neighborhood since 1990. "It's fabulous. We are going to now have a coordinated, focused effort on the part of the judiciary."

With a single judge presiding over the special caseload, police and prosecutors predicted, prostitution offenses will be tried more quickly and efficiently. Under the current system, prostitution cases are assigned to numerous judges throughout the courthouse, who often are unaware of any connections between them, the history of the defendants and the effects of the activities on individual neighborhoods, proponents of the new court said.

"I think the judge will actually have a bigger stake in the problem, some ownership of the problem and the effects on the community," said D.C. police Lt. Robert Halbleib, commander of the 16-member prostitution enforcement unit. The officers deal with the often-troubled women night after night, and they know that for many of those taken into custody, another run through the criminal justice system won't keep them off the streets.

While everyone at yesterday's announcement agreed that prostitution is less pervasive than it was even a few years ago, Brown and other neighborhood residents say the problem is far from eliminated. Recently, as she left her home shortly before 7 a.m., Brown encountered a prostitute with a client, she said. Police, too, have noticed that prostitutes are working well into the morning, sometimes as late as 8 or 9 a.m., and the prostitution unit may adjust its hours, Halbleib said.

Like the community court, the prostitution court will have social workers at hearings as well as ready access to drug treatment programs and mental health counseling.

"The whole approach is to problem-solve," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Asuncion, chief of the office's misdemeanors section.

Rather than processing a person's case over weeks or months, the judge will make swifter, smarter decisions about what to do with defendants, Asuncion said. "It's going to allow us to make much more informed decisions in each case," he said.

Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus G. King III said the prostitution court was a natural outgrowth of the community court, which tries to divert small-time offenders into programs that could keep them from becoming big-time criminals.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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Created: January 8, 2004
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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