Rethinking Arrests, Jail, and Fines: Street Prostitution and Public Policy in Omaha Nebraska


Omaha's current policy on street prostitution which focuses on deterring and punishing street-based sex workers through arrest and incarceration functions as a revolving door. The current practice of making frequent arrests results in prostitutes repeatedly going in and out of the court system, spending nights in the Douglas County Jail at the expense of taxpayers and coming back out of jail only to face the same situation, with no lasting change or benefit to prostitutes or the community. The way Omaha presently handles prostitution is an exercise in futility; it does nothing to break the vicious cycle involving poverty, police, prosecutors, and prostitutes. This cycle is not merely ineffective, it is also expensive. There are myriad costs associated with the current policy--costs of jailing prostitutes, law enforcement costs, city prosecutor costs, court system costs, plus the human costs to the prostitutes themselves. There is a cheaper, more effective, and more humane way of dealing with the social problem of street prostitution. Instead of jailing prostitutes for a short period of time and having them come out of jail unchanged, long-term interventions can be designed that will help prostitutes become self-sufficient, tax-paying citizens. To end the cycle and stop the revolving door, a change must occur in official policy toward street prostitution. This change should be grounded in a holistic approach which includes provision of permanent housing combined with provision of intensive and effective services.
Many people are involved in constructing this site. Although we come from all walks of life, most of us are criminal justice and public health professionals who have seen first hand the folly of Omaha's current policy toward street prostitultion. We are not do-gooders. Insofar as street prostitutes exiting from the life are concerned, we are advocates of smart, hard-headed best practices. We are committed to examining street prostitution in Omaha with a cold and yet compassionate eye, analyzing Omaha's current policy toward street prostitution as well as Omaha's policy options, developing a comprehensive plan for alleviating street prostitution in Omaha, and securing funding so that such a plan can be implemented. We undertake this enterprise with the same zeal that inspired the following explanation from Elwood (one of the main characters in "The Blues Brothers") when Elwood was asked why his brother Jake and him were putting the band back together: "We're on a mission from God," Elwood said. While the present effort to attack street prostitution is not faith-based in a strictly religious sense, those who have signed on have a strong faith in the notion that street prostutues are not social junk whose lives should be thrown into the garbage can. From the outcomes obtained by best practices programs for assisting street prostitutes in other cities we know that when street prostitutes are given opportunties and resources they can turn around their lives in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Putting in place a solid program in Omaha is going to be a hard fight. We are not operating under any illusions. Several years ago Omaha City Prosecutor Martin Conboy and some other noble-spririted folks mounted a similar drive to restore and rehabilitate Omaha street prostitutes. After Conboy and his group succeeded against big odds in getting legislation passed in the Unicameral which would establish a program to assist Omaha's street prostitutes in getting out of the life, Nebraska's Governor vetoed the bill. The efforts of Conboy's group were not in vain; we intend to build on those efforts and take advantage of lessons learned by his group.

Prostitution in Omaha

Current Public Policy
Current public policy in Omaha focuses on deterring and punishing street prostititon through arrests, jail, and fines with the goal of decreasing prostitution and associated community problems. Nebraska law makes prostitution illegal.
Section 20-131 of the Nebraska Code defines prostitution as "...the practice by a person, for hire for agreed upon compensation in money or other thing of value, of any sexual penetration or sexual contact with or between any persons of either sex not their spouse, expressly for compensation (Code 1980, § 20-131; Ord. No. 37431, § 1, 7-18-06). Section 20-133 defines solicitation as purposely or knowingly inducing , soliciting, or attempting to solicity another person not his or her spouse, to perform any act of sexual contact or sexual penetration, or attempting to induce another person to engage in an act of prostitution, in exchange for money or other thing of value.
(Code 1980, § 20-133; Ord. No. 37431, § 3, 7-18-06). Section 20-134 defines transportation as purposely or knowingly transporting or offering to transport any person to any place for the purpose of engaging in an act of prostitution with any person. Sectdion 20-135 prohibites pandering. Pandering is defined as purposely or knowingly offering to bring together or bringing together two or more persons for the purpose of engaging in an act of prostitution. Section 20-136 defines Enticement as purposely or knowingly to soliciting, enticing, or attempting to entice a person to become a prostitute or to enter a place of prostitution. With respect to proving a person is a prostitute, Section 20-137 allows prosecutors to use a person's "propensity to commit an act of prostitution" as competent evidence.

Section 20-138 prescribes penalites for prostitution. According to Nebraska law, any person convicted under the provisions of section 20-112, 20-113, 20-132 or 20-133 shall be punished as follows:
a. (1) For a first conviction, any person so offending shall be punished by a fine of not exceeding $500.00, or by imprisonment not to exceed six months, or both such fine and imprisonment in the discretion of the court. If such violation is under section 20-113 or 20-132, there shall be a minimum fine of not less than $250.00.
(2) For any second conviction under this article, or under section 28-801 of the Nebraska Revised Statutes, or when any offense specified above occurs in, or within 300 feet of, an area zoned as one of the residential districts in Article VI of Chapter 55 as listed in section 55-101, or any dedicated public park, any person so offending shall be punished by mandatory imprisonment of not less than ten days and not more than six months, and a minimum fine of not less than $300.00. (3) For any third conviction, under this article, or under section 28-801 of the Nebraska Revised Statutes, or when any second offense specified above occurs in, or within 30 feet of, an area zoned as one of the residential districts in Article VI of Chapter 55 as listed in section 55-101, or any dedicated public park, any person so offending shall be punished by mandatory imprisonment of not less than 30 days and not more than six months, and a minimum fine of not less than $500.00. (4) For any fourth or subsequent conviction under this article, or under section 28-801 of the Nebraska Revised Statutes, or when any third offense specified above occurs in, or within 300 feet of, an area zoned as one of the residential districts in Article VI of Chapter 55 as listed in section 55-101, or any dedicated public park, any person so offending shall be punished by mandatory imprisonment of six months, and a minimum fine of not less than $500.00. b. The court may, in cases it deems appropriate, order as a term of probation, an appropriate mental health and substance abuse assessment, conducted by a licensed mental health professional or a substance abuse professional authorized to complete such an assessment, and the completion of the treatment recommended in such assessment, and shall, for violations of section 20-132 where probation is imposed, assess a fine of $250.00.
(Code 1980, § 20-138; Ord. No. 36418, § 1, 10-7-03; Ord. No. 37200, § 1, 11-15-05; Ord. No. 37431, § 4, 7-18-06)

Prostitution Trends in Omaha
In The Gate City: A History of Omaha Lawrence H. Larsen and Barbara J. Cottrell describe the historical origins of prostitution in Omaha. According to these historians, prostitution flourished in nineteenth century Omaha and prostitutes operated openly in certain parts of the frontier town. Omaha newspapers labeled prostitutes "immoral women" and reported police raids on "disorderly houses." Some prostitues free-lanced and others worked out of saloons or bawdy houses. One of the hot spots for prostitution at this time was the tenderloin district in the vicinity of Ninth and Douglas Streets. Omaha police took an "order maintenance approach" toward street prostitution--so long as there were no serious disturbances involving prostitutes, police left prostitues alone. Few police resources were devoted to policing prostitution. Police raids were rare. .

Larsen and Cottrell point out that early in the 20th century prostitution continued in Omaha but it was not as open and visible. In this era of machine politics, men seeking prostitutes in Omaha had no trouble finding them. Many prostitutes lived and worked in the hundred or so "houses of assignation" in Omaha. Some of these houses were concentrated in an area called the Arcade. This place consisted of a four-block area of brick houses and paper shacks in the Third Ward. (where the hell is the third ward?) Three hundred women paid two dollars a night for "cribs" in places protected by private security. One successful madam opened a house of assignation where men brought their girlfriends and established a large house in "Scandal Flats" across from a hotel where cattlemen stayed. It is estimated that Omaha had twenty-six hundred professional "ladies of the night." In addition, there were irregular free-lancers who often worked out of dance halls. "Few of these girls were bad, they are simply inexperienced," a reformed prostitute explained. Larsen and Cottrell quote estimates claiming that collectively Omaha's houses of prostitution had average annual incomes from 1905 to 1911 of $17.5 million. In 1911 Nebraska legislators passed a law closing houses of prostitution. Larsen and Cottrell stress that the effect of this law was to disperse prostitutes throughout Omaha and to move prostitution into rooming houses and hotels. They quote a streetwalker as telling a reporter: "It's a poor girl on the street who can't make at least five dollars a night in Omaha."

Larsen and Cottrell point out that by the middle 1970s there was no longer a clearly marked red light district as there had been back in the heyday of the First Ward. Prostitutes worked throughout Omaha. Thw lowest-priced prostitutes, many of whom were on drugs, operated out of dives in South Omaha. Younger prostitues operated out of downtown go-go clubs near the Hilton Hotel. Their proximity to the Hilton allowed prostitutes to hustle visting businessmen who were guests at the Hilton. Larsen and Cottrell quote an undercover officer as stating that most prostitutes were unorganized and worked the motel and bar scene. Apparently, Omaha had only a few regular call girls.

Omaha's policy toward prostitutes during the 1970s ranged from one extreme to the other. During 1970, the first full year of Mayor Eugene Leahy's administration, there were only 43 arrests fdor pandering or prostitution. In the winter and spring of 1977, acting Mayor Robert Cunningham mounted a "crackdown" on what he called the "skin trade." Larsen and Cottrell characterize the results as "inconclusive." According to the historians, police arrests of prostitutes displaced the prostitution problem. For a short period, streetwalkers left the street and frequented the truck stops on the outskirts of Omaha and then returned to their old, familiar haunts once police enforcement was reduced.

.what about street prostitution in north and south omaha --before and after crack and meth? were meth and crack game changers for street prostitutes? how is the present economic recession effecting street prostitutution in omaha?

has street prostitution increased or decreased over the past two decades? what are the ressons for any changes?

Faces of Street Prostitution in Omaha Today
quotations from interviews with Omaha street prostitutes...quotations provide info on prostitutes own perceptions of why they do what they do and what resources and opps will be beneficial in helping them to exit...

UNO Social Work professor Patty Carlson's study of Omaha prostitutes?

Wellspring? Wellspring has been reaching out to and assisting prostitutes in the Omaha area since ??? The following survey data provides an overview of of the life of this group of women...average age?percentage arrested for prostitution? engage in commercial sex more than 6 times a week, engage in unprotected commercial sex, have hepitatis C, have used drugs in the past yr, have been homeless in past yr? have been diagnosed with a mental illness? have children? live with their children?.

characteristics of women wokring in Omaha street prostitutution today--does wellspring have a database on prostitutes that it has served?

Where does Prostitution Occur in Omaha Today?

Law Enforcement as Public Policy Towards Prostitution
The majority of resources devoted to responding to prostitution is in the arrest, prosecution, and jailing of prostitutes. The website of the Omaha Police Bureau (OPB) indicates that during the past several years Omaha police have arrested an average of 150 women for prostitution annually. If this number seems minimal, it is because it does not include arrests fror prostitution-related charges such as "lewd conduct" and "loitering with intent to solicit." The OPB lumps these offenses with other offenses under the category of "Sex Crimes (Excluding Rape." According to the Omaha City Prosecutor's Office, the most common misdemeanor for which women are prosecuted is prostitution???? In 2010 what percentage of the women charged with prostitution were repeaters or recidivists--that is, what percentage had at least one prior conviction for a prostitutuon-related charge? What percentage of women who were admitted to jail were sentenced as probation violators as the result of new charges for prostitution? For those women convicted on prostitution charges and sentenced to jail, what was their average length of stay in jail? For this same group, what percentage received services of from wellspring? What services did jailed prostitutes receive from wellspring?

what evidence, if any, supports the idea of a cycle of arrest, fines, and incarceration? Of all the women prosecuted for prostitution in 2010, how many had been convicted specifically of prostitution at least once befddore, at least twice before, or at least three times before??? Of this same group, how many had been fined for prostitution at least once before, twice before, three times before??? For this same group, what percentage of the women had been incarcerated at least once before in 2010 for prostitution? Of the women prosecuted for prostitution in 2006, what percentage were reprosectued for prostitution within the next three years?

Benefits of Arrests, Fines, and Jail for Prostitutes and the Community
Collateral Consequences of Arrest, Fines, and Jail for Prostitutes
Law Enforcement Policy Towards "Johns" and "Pimps"
Costs of Street Prostitution in Omaha
Making a Difference: Wellspring in Omaha
How does Wellspring operate in Omaha?
Have any evaluations of Wellspring in Omaha been completed? If so, what does the evidence indicate about the strengths and limitations of Wellspring?
Conclusion: longer, more holistic interventions are necessary in order to have a lasting impact on the lives of street prostitutes in Omaha

Lessons from Recent Efforts to Reform Public Policy in Omaha
what did Martin Conboy's group accomplish? How did this group operate? what worked and what didn't work for this group? what can we learn from Martin Conboy's experience?...Dos and Don'ts....

Models for Helping Sex Workers Exit from Street Prostitution: What Works?
Dallas, Texas; Rhode Island; Baltimore

Recommendations for Omaha
Possible Funding Sources