Diversion court for Sacramento sex workers hopes to RESET the paradigm

Prostitution arrests increased 45 percent last year

As the bailiff delivered a bright yellow envelope to the defense table, Judge Jennifer Rockwell told the young woman something she repeats to every new graduate. Inside was a gift card, good for nothing more extravagant than a cup of coffee. It’s a modest prize. But then again, RESET is a court with modest expectations.

“I get that this is not an easy thing to do,” Rockwell said from the Department 23 bench in Sacramento Superior Court last week. “It’s not like flipping a light switch and then life is better.”

An acronym for Reducing Sexually Exploited & Trafficked, RESET is a diversion court that allows adult sex workers to exchange misdemeanor criminal charges for programs that, if completed, dismiss the charges. Six months into its pilot season, it’s still too soon to say whether the court is working. But the tenor at the last two hearings suggested court officers know that the RESET may have to be hit more than once.

“This is a difficult population to work with, as far as recidivism goes,” said Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Paul Durenberger. “There’s going to be slips and falls.”

While defendants qualify for the court because of misdemeanor charges, they often possess a cornucopia of issues, like past trauma, housing instability, physical ailments, mental health conditions and, most often, drug dependency, or what Rockwell terms “self-medication.” As a misdemeanor court, Rockwell pointed out, “Both our carrots and our sticks are not so big.”

When it was unveiled during a press conference in June, RESET was framed as an acknowledgment that prosecuting sex workers only indentured them to the profession. Still, critics feared the program created an incentive to keep it supplied with participants, which its defenders strongly dispute.

Prostitution arrests in the county did experience a steep increase last year, according to data from the California Attorney General’s Office. The 396 prostitution arrests that were made in 2014 are the most in five years and represent a 45-percent increase over 2013. But those arrests occurred before the court’s launch. (2015 figures aren’t yet available.)

Like other diversion courts, RESET requires participants to plead guilty before they can participate, which irks advocates at the Urban Justice Center and Sex Workers Outreach Project. But court officers say the guilty plea makes it clear what’s at stake. “It’s good to have that clarity,” said Joseph Cress of the Sacramento County Public Defender’s Office.

Thus far, Rockwell has extended participants a decent amount of rope. Last month, she issued only three bench warrants, even though 16 of the 31 participants were no-shows. Last Friday, 10 of the 38 participants didn’t attend, resulting in two bench warrants, each worth $10,500. Rockwell says she’s still figuring out how often participants should appear before her. Some, she said, might benefit from the “extra encouragement.” But others might find the monthly check-ins detrimental to their progress. “I don’t want somebody to lose their job so I can tell them they’re doing a good job,” she said.

Unlike an earlier version that charged participants $250 a pop, had stringent eligibility requirements “and didn’t address any of the victims’ needs at all,” Durenberger said, RESET is free and doesn’t require participants to say they were trafficked, which can be a sticking point for sex workers who don’t want victimhood thrust upon them. Though the court program is open to all genders and races, all of its participants have been women and most—68 percent last week—are black, which SWOP Sacramento director Kristen DiAngelo says could indicate a racial bias in arrests.

But this close to the holidays, let’s focus on the positives. About 20 women have seen their charges dismissed thus far, with another six scheduled to graduate next month. A woman who recidivated was allowed back into the program, Rockwell said.

As last week’s lone graduate, a petite woman named Melissa accepted her yellow envelope with a promise. “You guys won’t see me in this court no more. No more street walking, no more Internet, I gave it up. I’m retired,” she said. Then, lifting her black ball cap as she walked the center aisle toward the exit, she bid adieu to her peers. “Merry Christmas to all! And a ho-ho-ho!” (Raheem F. Hosseini)