February 2, 2012

A “John school”  that provides diversion education for sex buyers who have pleaded guilty for soliciting prostitutes in Multnomah County has had a positive impact in its first year.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners learned during an update about the program at its meeting on Feb. 2 that about 60 people have taken part in the Sex Buyer Accountability and Diversion program since the school opened in January 2011.

Program participants listen to presenters talk about health education, sexually transmitted diseases and relapse prevention. They also learn how prostitution affects women and children and the legal ramifications of continued illegal activity. Presenters include medical professionals, sexual assault advocates, Portland police, a deputy district attorney and a woman who worked as a prostitute.

The diversion program is a joint effort of the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, Portland Police Department and provider LifeWorks Northwest. In 2010, County Commissioner Diane McKeel requested the county consider such a program as part of her work against human trafficking.

First-time offenders eligible for the program have six months to stay arrest free and take the class. Each person pays a $1,000 fee, which pays for the self-sustaining program.

Gary Kissel-Nielsen, program director for adult addictions at LifeWorks Northwest, told the Board of Commissioners that the program appears to have made an impact on attendees.

“Generally when they’re coming in and sitting down, the overall attitude is pretty resistant and closed,” Kissel-Nielsen said. “By the time they leave, it’s usually very emotional. They are asking questions throughout the process and they’re thanking us for the opportunity to do this. It’s an amazing transition throughout one day.”

Crystal Cooper, who worked as a prostitute for years, is a program presenter. Cooper tells offenders the story of how she was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and how at 18 she began working as a prostitute to survive.

“Really, we’re dying inside and we’re hopeless and lost and, really, that’s what these guys are contributing to,” Cooper said. “I’ve seen a few of the men are unremorseful, but others would have tears in their eyes.”

After stints in treatment and with support groups, Cooper has found her calling. She now works as a mentor in Washington County Probation and Parole with prostitutes who want to get out of the trade but don’t know how.

“What I came around to is that if I can be a voice to those women who are out there prostituting and let men know the reality of what they are contributing to, then I was grateful,” Cooper said.

Eventually, the program wants to gather more data on sex buyers to figure out how to reduce demand, said J.R. Ujifusa, a Multnomah County deputy district attorney assigned to prostitution and human trafficking.

Surveys have revealed some demographic information about the sex buyers. About 76 percent of the buyers are employed at the time of their arrest, according to the surveys. About 66 percent of the buyers are married, 63 percent had children and 65 percent of people made $50,000 or less per year.

In time, the program will be able to track recidivism rates, Ujifusa said.

For more information:

Contact Glen (JR) Ujifusa, Multnomah County deputy district attorney, at 503-823-4841 or glen.ujifusa@mcda.us