CHICAGO — As Cook County Jail fills with inmates waiting to be charged, tried or sent to prison, some officials are calling for an end to felony prostitution arrests in hopes of easing overcrowding.
Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer and Board President Toni Preckwinkle introduced a resolution at a County Board meeting on Wednesday that asks authorities to stop charging people caught dealing in the sex trade with felony prostitution.
They also called for Illinois legislators to remove the felony prostitution charge option from state law. Such a measure has been passed by a Senate committee.
A person may be charged with felony prostitution after only one prior prostitution conviction, said Gainer.
The Illinois Department of Corrections reported 127 prostitution admissions in 2012 at a cost of $2 million, according to End Demand Illinois, an advocacy group that seeks to reduce the punishment for sex workers.
Holding those facing felony prostitution charges in Cook County Jail costs the county Department of Corrections between $5.3 to $9.5 million annually, End Demand Illinois says.
If Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez agrees to charge suspects with misdemeanors instead of felonies — or if Illinois legislators remove the option from the books — offenders could face reduced jail sentences or fines.
Preckwinkle has suggested that the jail, at 3015 N. California Ave., release non-violent inmates to electronic monitoring or house arrest..
Gainer called the way the state currently handles prostitution charges "draconian."
“In the vast majority of the country, felony prostitution does not even exist,” Gainer said in a statement.
Illinois is one of only eight states that allow prosecutors to charge prostitution as a felony, a list that also includes Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri and Texas. Of those states, only Illinois allows for felony prosecution after only one prior conviction, Ganier said.
End Demand Illinois argues that state laws target prostitutes when they should instead focus on pimps.
"Many prostituted people report physical violence or coercion by their pimps — including threats, monetary withholding and verbal abuse — making them victims of human trafficking ... Any attempt to penalize them misplaces the criminal responsibility," the organization says.
With a charge of felony prostitution on their records, women face a difficult struggle to shed their past and be hired for legal jobs, Preckwinkle said.
“I would prefer to see jail cells reserved for people charged with violent offenses," Preckwinkle said. "Instead of detaining women charged with prostitution, we could spend that money providing services to help them and their children.”