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Philly Court Helps Sex Workers Heal

Project Dawn Court's innovative methods help women break the cycle of addiction and prostitution.


Most jailed sex workers report substance
addiction. Photo via

By May Wilkerson


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Philadelphia's Project Dawn Court is no traditional court of law. Part justice, part therapy, it's aimed at helping women with repeat prostitution offenses to exit the criminal justice system. As well as regular court hearings, it provides supervised treatment services to target the addiction and mental health issues that drove the women to sex work in the first place. Based on Philly's nationally-lauded Mental Health and Treatment problem-solving courts, it has three main purposes: to connect non-violent repeat offenders with therapeutic and re-entry services; to make communities safer by reducing recidivism; and to ease the financial burden of jailing minor offenders. To enter the program, women must complete four rigorous phases, ranging from drug and alcohol recovery to sexual trauma therapy; if they test positive for drugs or neglect their duties, they must backtrack and repeat a phase. The process lasts from 30-125 days. If a participant graduates, her case is dismissed with prejudice; a year later, provided her record shows no return to prostitution or drug-use, her case is expunged.

About 1,000 sex workers are arrested in Philly each year, of whom over 80% are women. Most report drug addiction—usually crack or heroin—and many have histories of sexual or emotional trauma. "These people don't need to be in jail," says J.P. West, director of partial hospital services at the Joseph J. Peters Institute, where the women receive treatment. "We are making criminals out of someone who suffered trauma." The program launched in January 2010 with 28 women, and has since graduated over 70% of participants, with 25 more joining this May. Aided by a recent $250,000 federal grant, they hope to expand to help 70 women each year. The first program of its kind in the US, Project Dawn Court has now been joined by a handful of similar programs elsewhere. 

"It sounds easy, but it's a really difficult program," says Lilly, a graduate. But she adds, "I'd rather be doing it than be in jail." Mary DeFusco, a public defender who helped found the court, says humanizing the judicial system is key. "The judge becomes a part of the person's therapy," she says. "[The women] are not used to judges saying 'good job, I'm proud of you.'" One current participant, Cassalia, is a recovering heroin and cocaine addict who worked in the sex industry for eight years. She entered the program in April. "You have to want to change your life if this program is going to work," she says. "You can't [bungle] it, you can't pretend, you can't 'fake it till you make it.' This is raw." Cassalia admits to struggling with relapse since joining Project Dawn, but says she "loves" going to court every month, due to the kindness and support of the judges. "We have lost so many relationships, we've had people use us...They're showing us how to love again and be loved."

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