Sunday, April 6, 2014

SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY: Fighting prostitution with humiliation

Last April, the first mug shot appeared on the San Bernardino County district attorney’s Stop the John Project website.

A 32-year-old Alhambra man had been convicted of soliciting a prostitute, a misdemeanor. He was the first in a photo gallery now numbering 20, the result of District Attorney Mike Ramos’ decision to wield humiliation to decrease the number of customers — the johns — and thereby reduce prostitution.

A year later, Ramos said it is difficult by statistics alone to measure the effectiveness of his campaign of shame, on either the number of prostitutes operating on the county’s streets and offering their bodies via the Internet, or the number of men seeking their services.

But Ramos is convinced that johns are well aware that their faces could wind up on the World Wide Web if they attempt to pay for sex in his county.

He said of the 20,000 page views the Stop the John website received in the first week, and 50,000 views in three weeks, one-third came from links on two websites that have forums where people are known to discuss prostitution and rank the women who sold them sex.

“I will guarantee you this: If you are a john in this county and you have friends and family members and you are a local resident, you are going to think twice about going out and committing this crime, because the world is going to see who you are,” Ramos said.

Focusing on the customers is a relatively new tactic in law enforcement. Human trafficking has grown significantly over the past several years, Ramos said. But arresting and convicting pimps has proven difficult because of their mobility and prostitutes’ reluctance to testify out of fear of retaliation. And prostitutes who are arrested are quickly back on the streets.

So now, Ramos said, “The biggest part for us is the deterrence factor.”

Additionally, he said, other district attorneys noticed the website and are considering adopting San Bernardino’s model. And he has received praise for his anti-prostitution efforts during speeches to community groups, Ramos said.

Defendants who used to quickly plead guilty to a crime and avoid publicity are now dragging out their court cases in hopes that prosecutors will agree to a plea deal that will keep their faces off the DA’s website, Ramos said.

Partly because that strategy isn’t working, Ramos said, there are 160 soliciting cases still in the pipeline. Prosecutors also are obeying Ramos’ decree not to plead the misdemeanor crime down to an infraction, which carries no jail time.

The 20 johns on the website have received sentences that typically include two to three years’ probation, more than $800 in fines, two days in jail and sometimes orders to stay away from the hotels where they were arrested, according to court records. They are not required to register as sex offenders.

“That’s why I came up with the Stop the John Project,” Ramos said. “I was frustrated. There really isn’t a lot you can do to them.”


Reducing the demand for prostitution is important to the safety of the prostitutes themselves, law enforcement officials say. Contrary to the glamorous lifestyle promoted by pimps and sometimes portrayed in the movies, prostitutes, some as young as 12, are subjected to physical and emotional cruelty and wind up with little of the money they collect.

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