Putting the “Personal” in “Personal Privilege”

I attended the first few minutes of last week’s city council meeting, long enough to see Rick Rushton hold the johns item under personal privilege.  That means the item will be up again for the Council’s review tomorrow evening.

Last week, Councilor Haller somewhat clarified (or perhaps corrected) the thrust of the proposal.  As Jeremy reported, ‘Haller clarifie[d] the car would be impounded after “arrest and conviction.”‘

And there’s the rub.

You see, no one actually gets convicted of the charge of paying for sexual conduct.

I spent quite a bit of time reviewing the Courthouse Records from the Telegram for the past decade or so; they are incomplete, but the best I can work with on relatively short notice.  Any mention of statistics in Worcester that follow should be taken with that grain of salt.

Since the implementation of the CARD Program four years ago [click here first for access], roughly half the men charged with paying for sexual conduct have opted to attend that program in exchange for having the case continued without finding.  The other half have their cases continued without finding, or are given a small ($600 or less) fine, or have the cases dismissed.

Let’s say that the state makes the proposed bill a law, and that men convicted of this crime would have their car taken away.  At that point, most men who would otherwise opt for a fine (which I assume would mean a conviction, but I welcome a correction to that assumption) would then likely opt for the CARD Program, which would be $200 and a continuance.

So, we’d see even fewer convictions than we already do, and have a pretty ineffective (and never-used) law on the books.

‘But wait!’  you say.  ‘When a man is arrested for a second time, that continuance without finding can quickly turn into a conviction.’

Excellent idea, dear reader.

Except that in my slightly-less-than-comprehensive review of records, I couldn’t find an example of a repeat offender.

While this could be due to the incomplete records, it is consistent with the experience of communities across the country.  If you scroll down this long report about the efficacy of johns schools [similar to the CARD Program] in California to page 91, you’ll see that in multiple cities, the rate of men who were rearrested for solicitation within a year of a previous arrest was consistently less than 0.1% (and in most cases, far less than that).

It’s unclear why there is a low recidivism rate for johns.  According to Monto and Garcia, “recidivism rates may be low because many of the men caught in sweeps are not regular users or because the arrest gives them insight into law enforcement strategies that reduces the likelihood that they will be rearrested, even if they continue to patronize prostitutes.”  Also, “the arrest itself may serve as a deterrent.”

In fact, according to a survey of 127 johns in Buffalo that was conducted in 1999, nearly half (66) were concerned about being arrested.  Only one man — less than 1% of the respondents — was concerned about having his vehicle seized.  (And that’s in a city where impounding johns’ cars is allowed!)

What does that tell us?

Arrests are sufficient deterrents for many first-time (or infrequent) johns.

Men who solicit on a regular basis are not going to be fooled by a police decoy (either because they are more savvy or because they are already familiar with whom they want to be with).  If we want to prevent those men from soliciting — who are, presumably, the ones we want to be preventing — stings will not do it, and neither will most penalties.

If we increase penalties, they will likely never be used (because of the CARD Program and continuation without finding).   And if they are used, it will most likely be on a first-time offender.  How is that fair?

Rather than spend time on a law that will never be effective, I’d like to see a detailed assessment like Buffalo’s.  It would be great to have surveys of arrested johns that describe their motivations, drug use, and fears; it would be equally great to have hard data on recidivism with or without the CARD Program.

I know it’s silly to mention facts and statistics in the face of something that is so irrational it will naturally sail through the City Council…but it’s worth a try, isn’t it?

Sign Shop Manager featured in On the Job column

There was an interview with Richard Fields of the city sign shop in today’s Telegram.

Many thanks to Nick K. for the following question:

There seem to be different style street-name signs throughout the city; are there any plans to have a more uniform design and style for those signs?

“Yes, we are going to have a standard sign. We are trying to put in one standard with the correct font, a font that’s easy to read with a standard height, a standard blade size and everything will be reflective.”

Also, many thanks to Mr. Fields for not answering “Is there anything about your job you’re not crazy about?” with “Obsessive bloggers.”

Seriously.  Call me.

District Councilors, District School Committee Members

Yesterday’s T&G had an extremely interesting Nick K. column about the possibility of district school committee members (up on the docket again tomorrow).

It’s a good synthesis of what Dave Goldberg has been saying for quite a while (and the belief system to which he has converted me); that is, it’s unclear whether one of the original intents of the ‘new’ charter (bringing about a more diverse group of candidates) has been achieved.

I won’t rehash the column, but there is a larger point that’s worth making.

According to Daily Worcesteria, the Mayor’s motivation is that “adding four seats to the School Committee and mingling district with at-large representation will boost voter interest, up turnout and encourage new candidates to run.” [quote is from the article and not from the Mayor]

Has adding five district council seats boosted voter interest?  Ask the handful (literally) of folks who attended the D3 Council debate.

Has voter turnout increased over the past 20 years?

Have new candidates been successfully able to unseat incumbents?  (Because that was one of the points of the charter change for City Council, and that is certainly one of the motivations behind this change as well.)

As Jeremy asks, will “adding four more politicians to city government improve advocacy for specific schools or areas”?

Indeed, one might wonder about the motivations of a legislative body that asks for a major reorganization of another legislative body while at the same time rejecting proposals to look into reassessing the city charter, limiting the number of terms a member can serve on a subcommittee, and increasing citizen participation in meetings.

I remain skeptical about the efficacy of district councilors, the introduction of which has done little to improve voter participation or diversity in the ranks of elected officials.

While it’s a Worcester tradition to apply models that are proven to not work (or, in this case, to not achieve their goals), I’d prefer it if we took a step back and asked ourselves what the intention of this question is.

Is it to improve voter turnout?  If district council seats couldn’t do that, why do we think district seats on a much-less-followed race will make that happen?

Is it to increase representation from underserved groups?  If so, we need to ask ourselves also whether that’s possible when the school district doesn’t get funding broken down by individual schools.  It’s also important to keep in mind that a significant portion of children in the public schools have parents who might not be able to vote.

I also worry about the implication that someone needs to look like me (gender-wise or color-wise) or live next door to me in order to adequately represent me.  Just because someone is a woman does not mean she’ll represent my interests better than a man.  That doesn’t mean increased diversity among elected officials isn’t something to be encouraged, but it tends to lead to nonsensical arguments along the lines of “if women ran the world there would be no wars.”

By all means, let’s have a discussion about representation on the School Committee.  But assuming that district representation will solve problems that may or may not exist starts that discussion off on the wrong foot.