CADDO PARISH, LA (KSLA) - People ensnared in the cycle of prostitution and the criminal lifestyle it engenders now have a lifeline through Caddo District Court.
The Court, in partnership with faith-based Purchased: Not for Sale, an affiliate of the downtown Hub Ministries, have begun a diversion program called Exit Strategy. The brainchild of Assistant District Attorney Holly McGinness, it has been in the setup and planning stages since mid-2015 but began just weeks ago.
"The program began in December with (District Attorney) Judge (James) Stewart's approval and full support" said McGinness, a native Texan reared in Florida, educated in South Louisiana and hired in early 2014 by the late former Caddo DA Judge Charles Scott. "From Day One both Judge Stewart and (Chief Deputy District Attorney) Wilbert Pryor have been behind the program. Everyone within the Caddo District Court really has, from the judges to all of the ADAs."
McGinness, 29, already has become known to the public for several successful second-degree murder and stalking prosecutions, and for recent success in prosecuting the criminal abuser of the dog Braveheart.
"The idea behind the name is that no person is for sale, we've already been purchased by Jesus," McGinness said. "Our program is called Exit Strategy.
In the realm of the criminal courts, we deal with individuals charged with prostitution. But we also come in contact with people whose charge may not be prostitution but may be a drug offense or a property offense. But we can look at their rap sheet and see by their history they are at risk. The Exit Strategy is to get them out of that lifestyle and out of the court system and divert them into the Purchased program."
Most people who engage in prostitution and other "sex industry" crimes, which begin as victimless misdemeanors, cannot engage in other meaningful productive work and often have underlying drug or mental problems that contribute to their cycle of criminal activity. Exit Strategy is meant to break that cycle.
"My position is the individual engaging in the acts of prostitution are the victims," said McGinness. "Nine times out of 10 there is some sort of underlying trauma or abuse or addiction or coercion that has led to this lifestyle. The reason I am so passionate about this program is these are not typical criminals. They're not out committing crimes because it's fun or they have nothing better to do. It's a means of survival. It's not a criminal mentality, it's a different mentality."
In a typical case, a person arrested for prostitution and booked into Caddo Correctional Center who agrees to enter the Exit Strategy Diversion is, depending on the judge involved, released on their own recognizance or on a reduced bond on condition they report to the Purchased facility or call its hotline within 48 hours, and then follow the provisions of the program.
"While they are in the program we are essentially deferring prosecution of their pending charge," McGinness said. "So long as they report to the program, do everything they are supposed to do, stay out of trouble, at the completion of the program we'll nolle pros their charges, or dismiss their case. In the event they don't report, they stop showing or stop participating, we'll get out a bench warrant, they're re-arrested and they're back in the system. We proceed as normal."
The program, nominally a year but possibly up to 18 months long, will offer access to free medical care, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, GED classes if necessary, job training, financial literacy classes and parenting skills classes if needed, McGinness said. Participants also get a bus pass and a merit-based savings account.
Participants must attend all meetings and classes, pass random drug screening, follow applicable curfews, maintain all court-ordered meetings and activities and check in regularly with probation and parole.
The program also will help them prepare a resume and find a job to help eliminate the need for the money that otherwise would have come from sex. A parallel juvenile court program also is being crafted.
So far, only five people, all but one female, have entered the program. The reason for the low participation is because Exit Strategy requires dedication and immersion with previous ties to friends and acquaintances severed, almost like witness protection.
"When they first sign up they have 30 day probationary period where they don't even get a cell phone," McGinness said. "It's a total disconnect from everything in their lifestyle. It's not an easy program. At least 20 eligible people have said 'No, that's not for me.' We don't give out the address for the Purchased facility. They do have some housing solutions, and in March a donated house will be ready that will be specifically for the Exit Strategy program, that will house five to six individuals at a time."
Purchased has been in operation around four years through Hub Ministries, with Cassie Hammett at the helm. McGinness met Hammett when she was working with an FBI agent in a child sex-trafficking case.
"Prostitution is very difficult to just pack up and leave," Hammett said. "It's hard to walk away from and a lot of times, with pimps involved and such, you can't. Everyone agrees there's a revolving door with prostitution and drugs, with you seeing the same people over and over again. If those people stopped returning you would see a lot of benefits, including not taking up court time and jail time. We want to interrupt the cycle."
So far, Purchased has helped around 100 women who called its hotline and sought help escape the sex trade, Hammett said.
"We had a girl in our program who was arrested 35 times before entering," she said. "She hasn't been (arrested) and won't be since finishing our program. When it's mandated by the court, they're more than likely going to take it more seriously than the people who do it voluntarily. With the weight of the DA's office behind it, the potential will be even greater for us to help. I think it will be more than we can imagine, especially as the word spreads."
As for the faith aspect, Hammett said it isn't an aspect of the program they will dismiss but at the same time "we aren't a shove-it-down-your-throat organization. We want people to find their faith. You don't have to believe to belong. Our hope is that the spiritual component will fall into place. We accept anyone who comes through that door but there will be a time when they have to face questions about their spiritual life."
For more information, visit the Purchased: Not for Sale website at http://thehubministry.com/purchased/
Its hotline number is (318) 759-7565.