Cook County establishes diversion program for prostitution defendants

Some defendants facing prostitution charges in Cook County could avoid jail time under a new court diversion program focusing on addiction treatment, counseling and other services.

The program, announced Friday by Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, involves what's called "deferred prosecution" in the Chicago Prostitution and Trafficking Intervention Court, or CPTIC. If a defendant completes certain requirements, prosecutors will dismiss the charges.

Defendants who decline the program or fail to finish it will have the option of pleading guilty and entering treatment as an alternative to incarceration.

The goal, according to the state's attorney's office, is to reduce jail overcrowding and address substance abuse issues prevalent among women engaged in prostitution.

"We know that many women involved in prostitution are victims of human traffickers or they face issues such as chronic homelessness, mental health issues or addiction and they engage in prostitution for basic necessities such as food and shelter," Alvarez said in a prepared statement. "We believe this unique and coordinated initiative will bring positive results for the participants and their families, public safety and the criminal justice system as a whole."

A defendant's criminal background will determine participation in the program, which will be at the Cook County Domestic Violence Courthouse at 555 W. Harrison St., Chicago.

The initiative is the first of its kind to address the issue since the General Assembly approved eliminating felony prostitution charges under Illinois law last year.

People working in the sex trade may come to court as defendants, but they are also victims, said Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans, who ordered the establishment of the new court.

"They are in need of our compassion and help, which is why the court collaborated with our fellow stakeholders on this program," Evans said in a statement, adding "clients in our new court will attain the courage to transition out of "the life," as it is called to a new and better life."

Cook County Public Defender Amy P. Campanelli called the initiative a step in the right direction.

"It will remove (defendants) from the cycle of drugs, abuse and exploitation and treat them as humans, not as case numbers," Campanelli said in a statement.

Organizations providing service to offenders include: Christian Community Health Center, the Salvation Army, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Thresholds, a social service organization that assists people suffering from mental illness.

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