There were significantly fewer prostitution-related arrests in Worcester during the COVID pandemic compared to previous years, according to the latest arrest statistics from the Worcester Police Department.
But the new data, shared earlier this year in a virtual meeting with the Commission on Human Rights, also sheds light on whether the city’s diversion program is helping protect survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and of sex trafficking by keeping female prostitutes out of prison – an issue officials say they have tried to make a priority in recent years.
Only 10 women and 11 men were arrested on charges related to prostitution in 2020. In 2019, there were 63 women and 39 men.
Officials say they have tried to reverse what has historically been a trend of more arrests of “Jane” than “John”.
“We would like to see fewer arrests and more women in treatment,” Dr Matilde Castiel, Worcester’s health and social services commissioner, told MassLive.
Nicole Bell, founder and executive director of Living In Freedom Together, said the city, with help from local partners, started diversion efforts in 2018. It made a difference that year, Bell says, so that the police arrested 38 women against 96 men. alleged buyers of sex – for prostitution-related offenses.
Looking at arrests dating back to 2010, however, a different picture is painted. From 2010 to 2015, there were 669 arrests of women compared to 154 arrests of men. In an email request, Worcester Police officials said they were now “committed to targeting the request” and “constantly reviewing our procedures and trying new approaches.”
Asked about the disproportion between arrests of women and men, a police spokesperson pointed to data for the past five years, which shows a stabilization of arrests between the sexes – 233 women for 223 men.
And it’s no coincidence: authorities began deploying a “quality of life team” several years ago to help intercept women and direct services, according to Castiel, who was appointed commissioner in 2015. Numerous studies have shown that sex work is often linked to drug use. , and when Castiel started her tenure, she said she wanted to make drug addiction, trauma and sex trafficking a top priority, “front and center.” The city’s partnership with LIFT – the “only de facto provider for victims of sex trafficking” in the city for years, according to Castiel – is the product of some of this work.
“I wanted to know more about what was going on,” Castiel said. “We don’t want to stop people with (substance use) and addiction issues. “
Bell, who initially asked police for police department arrest data, suggests most arrests occur in low-income neighborhoods, adding that she believes white-collar demand is vastly underestimated. . Bell says buyer arrests are expected to occur in much greater numbers, calling the current strategy “completely ineffective”.
“It’s a waste of time for the police and for the court,” she said.
Worcester Police say the majority of arrests take place in the Main South neighborhood, where authorities say they receive the most prostitution-related complaints from residents. The department does not have readily available data on the demographics of those arrested by “John,” a spokesperson said.
Bell says police should not respond to such complaints to begin with, noting that law enforcement agencies are not “trauma-informed” institutions. The arrest process is inherently traumatic, Bell says, exacerbating the problems facing a population of people already deeply affected by trauma.
She stresses that more collaboration is needed.
“There is a need for a real partnership to provide survivors with exits from this life,” she said.
Janes who are prostitutes are arrested and then offered pre-charge diversion services, a process overseen by the Worcester County Attorney’s Office, Joseph Early Jr.,. Early’s office then contacts LIFT, and the two parties establish the terms of the interim release. Women with a history of prostitution who are arrested for other minor offenses are also usually referred, police said.
According to data provided by the prosecutor’s office, 34 women were turned away between May 2019 and February 2020, and officials note that arrests related to prostitution have largely ceased over the past year due to the pandemic.
Bell says that to date LIFT has not, however, received any referrals from the Worcester Police Department. While the department appears to favor the standstill process – a spokesperson told MassLive that “everything is at the discretion of the prosecutor’s office” – Bell insists the police have the ability to initiate referrals to the place of arrests.
There is a section of Main South that has historically battled sex trafficking, according to Main South Community Development Corporation executive director Steve Teasdale; but the city, says Teasdale, “has not been able to formulate a lasting answer to the problem.”
Teasdale says he would like to see authorities step up policing, “target traffickers and John’s” and increase outreach support and treatment for affected women.
“There have been efforts, but so far no successful strategy has been institutionalized that recognizes the detrimental impact of sex trafficking on the community and addresses this challenge both through the police and a coordinated support system. for the victims, ”he wrote in an email.
Castiel says when sex buyers are arrested most of the time they are “bailed out and have to attend a class.” Some experts argue that by targeting sex buyers, law enforcement can help reduce demand and therefore curb trafficking.
“Stopping women is not what we should be doing,” Castiel said. “Men are the culprits here. “