CHICAGO -- Despite dozens of arrests while working the West Side as a street prostitute, Leeanna Majors says she usually spent no more than a few days at a time in custody.
Time after time, she quickly returned to West Madison Street to continue to sell her body for money.
"I wasn't given any options, so I stayed with the ones that I had," said Majors, now 56, who only quit the trade five years ago after more than three decades on the streets.
Now Cook County court officials hope a new pilot program will help some longtime prostitutes get the help they need to get off the street -- and stay off.
At first a limited number of women will be offered treatment and counseling as part of an intensive months-long effort -- much as courts have done in recent years for drug addicts, the mentally ill and military veterans who have committed crimes.
The once-a-week courtroom opens its doors Friday in the Criminal Courts Building to an initial 25 women who have a long history of arrests and are currently charged with felony prostitution.
"She has to want to change her life," Associate Judge Rosemary Grant Higgins, who will be heading the specialized court, said of the women.
Those that opt to take part will plead guilty to the felony charge, be sentenced to two years of probation and sign a contract promising to complete whatever treatment and social services that experts believe are needed to end their ties to prostitution.
The women will be jailed for at least 90 days while they are evaluated for any underlying drug, alcohol or other problems and given a chance to stabilize from substance abuse or emotional trauma.
"A lot of them come to us so sick," Debbie Boecker, executive director of the sheriff's Women's Justice Services treatment facility at the county jail.
Depending on the extent of the problems, the women could then go to inpatient facilities outside of jail for more intensive treatment or be placed in subsidized housing for at least a year "to get away from the trade," Higgins said.
The women can also receive assistance on a host of other issues -- from furthering their education and seeking job counseling to dealing with their health care needs and working with advocates to resolve child-custody issues.
In addition, the women will be matched up with former prostitutes who will serve as mentors and share how they were able to leave the business.
Officials said the specialized court shouldn't add to county expenses because they plan to man the courtroom with prosecutors, public defenders and probation and sheriff's officials already assigned to the courthouse, and the many services would be provided by existing nonprofit organizations.
Court officials hope the pilot project might someday replace the revolving-door system that most prostitutes endure, sometimes for years.
Currently, most prostitutes amass several pages of arrests on their rap sheets before they might be charged with a felony offense -- and even then they often serve very little time in prison, according to Higgins.
According to records supplied by the Circuit Court, about 3,900 suspects -- the vast majority women -- were convicted of felony prostitution offenses over the last decade. An analysis of the records by the Chicago Tribune shows the offenders were 35 years old on average.
Women in the sex trade often share a common background.
Many were physically or sexually abused in their youth, addicted to drugs or turned to prostitution because of homelessness, said Jody Raphael, a senior research fellow at DePaul University College of Law who has interviewed Chicago prostitutes and pimps for research into the sex business.
Raphael applauded the pilot program but questioned why the intervention for the women wouldn't come much sooner, even after the first misdemeanor charge.
"That's where you would prevent a lot of hardship," she said.
Officials acknowledge that the court will start out small but hope it will ultimately expand. With their limited resources, they said the focus needs to be on women who are most likely to benefit -- those who might be tiring after years at the game.
"The line I hear all the time is, 'I was tired of being tired,' " said Criminal Court Presiding Judge Paul Biebel, who has been working to set up the court for about two years.
Even before the start of the court Friday, officials have already decided to scale back the requirements the women must meet to take part in the program. At first, officials expected the women to follow strict guidelines that experts believed would be most helpful in turning their lives around. But after screening some of the early applicants, they've agreed to be more flexible in their approach as long as the women remain committed to trying to end their ties to prostitution.
"We're asking them to completely change their lives," Higgins said. "That's a daunting task to ask of anyone."
Like a handful of similar programs in other parts of the country, the Cook County court has omitted the word prostitution from its official name -- the WINGS Project, which stands for Women in Need of Gender Specific Services.
Daria Mueller a senior policy analyst with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless who played a key role in getting the program off the ground, said officials did not want to stigmatize women participating in the court.
"There is a recognition by the court that these women should be treated as victims," added Higgins, who had worked as a judge at Domestic Violence Court for 4 1/2 years.
Mueller, who has advocated on behalf of "prostitution survivors" in her work with the coalition, approached Biebel about two years ago with the hope of connecting women in the sex trade to social services.
"It's the epitome of violence against women," she said of prostitution. "They're such a marginalized group."
Mueller said she enlisted the help of Majors, a former heroin addict who finally quit prostitution after 33 years, to explain how difficult it was to leave the industry.
Majors, who volunteers with the coalition, gave law enforcement officials insight into how she was in and out of jail and raped, robbed and beaten on the street.
"I think my whole purpose in my being involved is to show that it's possible" to make the transformation from the street, she said.
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