The Dallas Examiner

Texas filed approximately 3,500 prostitution cases during the last fiscal year, 90 percent of which were women. The cost for housing those convicted exceeded the funding issued for prostitution diversion programs. In fact, diversion programs could result in a savings of over $4 million annually, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration.

Moreover, diversion programs generally offer those who have been arrested for prostitution a second chance at life – an opportunity to have a stable life, get an education, find a better job or career, obtain housing and for some, be a better parent.

In an effort to encourage courts to refer individuals to these programs, State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, filed Help Not Jail for Prostitution Bill, House Bill 1218 earlier this year. The primary purpose of the bill is to reduce crime by preventing felony convictions for those who need a way out of world of prostitution.

The bill is very similar to House Bill 1363, which he co-authored during the 84th legislative session in 2015. The bill was on its way to becoming a law, but after passing by a 145-0 vote in the House and a 27-4 vote in the Senate, Gov. Greg Abbott suddenly vetoed it.

“Without any warning, without any explanation,” Johnson recalled. “He vetoed that bill without ever discussing with me, at any point in the process while it was in the House that he had any issues with it. So, if you think about the process for passing a bill, you file it and it becomes public. He never said, ‘Hey, I don’t like that bill.’ But just ‘OK,’ because at that point nothing’s really happened to it. But then it got heard in committee and he never expressed any concerns about [it], or [had] anyone from his office call and say, ‘Hey, I got a problem with that’ or ‘concerns with that.’ Then it gets voted out of the committee favorably and sent to calendars, where it gets set for floor debate. He never had any issues on the floor. He never called and said, ‘Hey, you have a bill on the floor that I got a problem with. You need to amend it in this way or that way or I’m going to veto it.’ He never said anything. He didn’t voice one concern with me or anyone who had anything to do with the bill the entire time it was in the House. It passes out of the House overwhelmingly supported.

“Then it goes over to the Senate. It’s the exact same process over there. Since I’m not a senator, a senator has to lay it out in committee. To my knowledge, I’m 99.9 percent certain the governor never raised one concern with the Senate sponsor of the bill … and it passed the Senate overwhelmingly. So, the session ends and the governor’s got all these bills to sign, and on the very last day – I feel like – I get a notice that the bill’s being vetoed and there’s nothing you can do about it at that point.”

Johnson stated that Abbott’s veto statement was limited to one concern; he didn’t want to lessen the penalty for willful, repeat offenders.

“My problem with his statement is that he misses the entire point of the legislation. I mean, aside from the fact that he never even talked to anyone about it and vetoed it without any discussion, which is in my opinion, less than respectful of the legislative process. That’s not how it should be done. But he’s a new governor, or at least he was a new governor at the time, so maybe he doesn’t know. But a phone call at some point or a meeting at some point to discuss it once it was clear that the bill was moving through the process would have been appropriate,” Johnson digressed. “But that aside, based on his detailed statement, it’s clear that he doesn’t understand the purpose of the bill. Because he’s talking about primarily women … But you have to understand that these women are not willful, repeat offenders. They are offenders, true. They are repeat offenders, true. But ‘willful’ makes it seem as though they’re not acting under tremendous duress, and they are.”

Johnson stated that the vast majority of these women – between 65 to 95 percent of those arrested – were molested as minors, which can cause a spiral-down effect, leading to mental health issues, drug abuse, prostitution, on-going abuse, etc.

“So we’re talking about survivors of sexual assault. And the vast majority of them have some issue ranging from mental health issues to substance abuse issues. Some of them are homeless. Some of them have been sex trafficked,” he stated. “There’s all kinds of things that are going on in these people’s lives to where its only right to treat these folks as victims, not criminals. They are the victims of a crime and we should be doing whatever we can to help them get rehabilitated and help them get the help they need to get out of prostitution. Not saddling them with a felony that will keep them from ever getting a job, of ever getting housing, which in essence will trap them in a life of prostitution – make them where the only thing they can do is be a prostitute.

“And so, he doesn’t get the point at all.”

With an air of frustration in his voice, he went on to say that he is hoping to do a better job of educating the governor during this session about the purpose of HB 1218 and how it would work.

At present, when a person is arrested for the act of prostitution the first time, it is a class B misdemeanor. The second and/or third offense is either a class B or a class A misdemeanor. If they are arrested for prostitution after that, it becomes a felony.

“Which is pretty harsh given that most states don’t even prosecute prostitution as a felony at all,” Johnson said. “Texas is one of the few states that eventually prosecutes it as a felony after the third time, which in the grand scheme of things is really not all that many for someone who is actively on the street working as a prostitute.”

Johnson said HB 1218 wouldn’t lessen the penalty; it would delay the felony.

“What does the bill do? The bill says, ‘Look, we want these women to get out of this lifestyle. And if you make them felons they have no incentive to get out because their lives are ruined,” he said, as he expounded on how difficult is to get a job when they have to put on their job application that they’re a felon and explain what the offense was.

“So, what our bill does, is it stretches out the period before which you get a felony,” Johnson explained. “The way it would work under our bill is the first, second and third time you get arrested for prostitution, it’s a class B misdemeanor. The fourth, fifth and sixth time you get arrested for prostitution you get a class A misdemeanor. And then after the sixth time you get a state jail felony. So, in essence we give you three more times before you get a felony.

“And that’s a big deal because those extra three chances might be the amount of time that a person needs to get into a prostitution diversion program that some of our courts offer, where they can learn how to get out of that lifestyle … getting a real job and getting a place to stay and getting on their feet. Once you slap someone with that felony, you’re making that nearly impossible.”

Johnson went on to say that HB 1218 would encourage prostitutes to participate in the diversion programs, such as those offered at the Prostitution Diversion Court that offers classes taught and mentored by former prostitutes. The programs coach the women on changing their lifestyle and address underlying issues such as mental health, substance abuse and/or having been molested as a minor.

“Some of them are doing it because they’re in a human trafficking situation … and that needs to be addressed. So we also encourage the counseling and information that these counties provide include information about human trafficking and how to identify the signs of human trafficking and to prevent it,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, to encourage these counties to also create programs that, instead of just housing these women in jail, we can actually get them the help they need to break the cycle.”

The state representative is also hoping to get Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on board.

“I’m hoping that since the lieutenant governor seemed to be overly concerned with what goes on in bathrooms, because they claim that they’re worried about women being sexually assaulted in bathrooms, that they would then be willing to support a bill that is clearly aimed at helping the 65 to 95 percent of women who are in prostitution, who have been sexually abused themselves … this bill should be right up their alley because these are women who have actually been abused. We don’t have to imagine it. We know it’s happened. That’s really the whole story and why we thought filing it again would make sense,” Johnson stated.

Overall, he said that HB 1218 was simple and a small step to take to improve lives in a big way.

“It’s actually not that complicated. It shouldn’t be that controversial,” he insisted. “The House and Senate both overwhelmingly supported it. Because I think my colleagues get that we spend a lot of money in this state, putting people in jail who we’re not afraid of, but we’re just mad at. Jail should be for people we are afraid of, not people we’re just mad at.”

Johnson said it’s crazy to think that Texas spending thousands of dollars in state jails to lock up women up for prostitution.

“It doesn’t help solve the problem.”

As scheduled, bill went to committee March 20. The state of Texas reported that it was “reported favorably without amendments.” Its status, as of print deadline, was still “In committee.”

The next step is the floor debate, which as not been set. Johnson stated that the bill – like the many he has authored and co-authored – was designed to help the community and stated that the community can also help push the bill to the next level by calling the members of the House Calendars Committee and asking them to set HB 1218 for floor debate. The Texas Directory listed the number as 512-463-0758.

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