Women charged with prostitution get second chance in Travis County

Judge Mike Denton oversees a Phoenix Court hearing (Courtesy/Amanda Brandeis)
Judge Mike Denton oversees a Phoenix Court hearing (KXAN Photo/Amanda Brandeis)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Women arrested for prostitution in Travis County are being offered a choice: go to jail or agree to take part in the Phoenix Program.

It has been underway for a year now. The court looks past the police citation and sees the invisible struggles, like severe mental health issues and drug addiction.

“A lot of PTSD. A lot of the women we get in the program were molested as children, and so they haven’t resolved any of these issues yet,” said Phoenix Court Case Manager, Tony Frank. “We don’t treat the women as criminals, we all realize they have other issues that brought them into the lifestyle, and that we’re here, the whole court team is here to help them.”

The Phoenix Court has its own docket, and the atmosphere inside isn’t typical for a court room. When women do well, cheers and applause can be heard from outside. But for the other women just starting the journey, empathy can be felt throughout the room.

For those that agree to the program, Frank helps them get housing, substance abuse treatment and counseling — at no cost to them. “Usually, probably 99 percent of them are homeless, so housing is a big issue, that would be the first need we take care of,” said Frank.

Judge Mike Denton is one of the Phoenix court judges. “Like a lot of people, I thought I understood what trafficking was, but once I got into the program, quite frankly, the lives people lead, right now on our streets, is unimaginable to most of us.”

Denton volunteered to help with the program on top of his normal caseload, because he knows how valuable it is to the whole community.

“The way we’ve always dealt with it in the past is they would be arrested and quite frankly released after a short stint in jail, and would return to do the exact same thing,” said Denton. “We’ve had some setbacks, I won’t say we didn’t. You saw me talk to people today who’ve drank yesterday – they’re in the beginning part of the program. If they stay with it, they’ll end up like the graduates you saw today, that are sober and have rejoined the community in a way we’re all proud of.”

So far the Phoenix Program has had two successful graduates and will be graduating two more in the coming month. “I’m a heroin addict. When your body needs it, you’re going to do what you have to do,” said one of the graduates, who agreed to speak with KXAN anonymously. “I learned very quickly, that it was easy, and it got what I needed very easily.”

The woman says she moved to Austin two years ago to get sober, but relapsed. She met someone who introduced her to prostitution, and started doing it as a way to fund her drug habit.

“Just the fact that I was on drugs, it helped with the situation of not being embarrassed or ashamed of what I was doing, I was already putting a needle in my arm.”

This went on for about two months, until a police sting landed her in the back of a patrol car.

The woman agreed to take part in the program, so she could get the charge of her record. She would relapse two more times before finally surrendering to the program and accepting the help.

“Seven months ago I was in a parking lot shooting heroin, and it’s like now, I have a job and people respect me, and people call me for advice, women look up to me.”

She’s seven-months sober and the second program graduate. Judge Denton hopes she’ll be a mentor to future women in the program.

“Sometimes, there’s a bad response, you go to jail for fouling up,” said Judge Denton. “Sometimes you do great like all the people we had today. You’re going to applaud that success, so yeah, it’s different than a normal court would be.”

“I’m happy for the first time in I don’t even know how long, I’ve never been this happy before,” said the graduate.

Houston and Dallas have similar programs. They were created after the state passed a mandate requiring large counties to do so. Each one is a little different, but they all take a holistic approach in providing community-based services to help women recover from the trauma experienced in the commercial sex trade.

For more information on the program go to the Travis County website here. 

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