Travis County creates prostitution court with new philosophy on criminals

Travis County will no longer treat those who are arrested for prostitution as criminals. Instead, they will be addressed as victims-- as very few participate on their own free will. It's the philosophy of the county's new prostitution diversion court.

Along the streets of Austin, inside hotels, and on websites police say women and men are being forced into performing sex acts for money.

"The commercial sex industry here in the Austin area is very active," said Sgt. Bob Miljenovich.

Pimps will profit while the prostitutes are drugged, beaten and sexually assaulted.

"There's always some kind of underlying trauma problem or incident in their past that has lead them to doing this now," said Miljenovich.

There are 58 prostitution cases pending in Travis County, but arrests appear ineffective.

"It's a revolving door. People come in. They get relatively light sentences they go back out on the street and things are the same," said Judge Mike Denton. "What we didn't recognize all these years or at least didn't come to grips with is very often people being arrested are truly victims. We know that they are being trafficked."

For the first time Travis County will address prostitutes as victims. A team of counselors will assess those arrested inside the jail. If they are willing to get treatment for whatever issue is keeping them in the lifestyle, their charges will be dismissed upon completion of the treatment program.

It's called the Phoenix court. Judge Mike Denton and Judge Brandy Mueller will monitor the cases.

"What we're trying to do is provide them with an alternative, to recognize the fact why they're in the life that they are to give them the type of support so they can escape that life," said Mueller.

Last session, the legislature ordered cities with a population of more than 200 thousand to create a type of prostitution diversion program. The Phoenix Court is Travis County's version. Denton and Mueller will oversee it for free. Grant money will pay for other expenses.

So far, two people have asked to participate in the program.

For Denton and Mueller that is a win.

"This is a chance for us to make a difference," said Denton. "Can you imagine what their life is like? How can you not think it's your duty to stop that and to help. I couldn't and that's what we're doing here."

The Phoenix Court participants will be monitored, possibly for a year before charges are dismissed.
It is modeled after a court program that allows veterans arrested for crimes to choose treatment and upon completion of treatment have their charges dismissed. The Veterans Court is in its fourth year.