A state lawmaker wanting to drive prostitution off the streets and out of Arizona is pushing for tougher penalties against prostitutes and their patrons.
A bill prepared for the upcoming legislative session sponsored by Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Mesa, calls for mandatory jail time and offenders to attend a court-ordered rehabilitation program.
Currently, there are no state laws governing the sentencing of those convicted of prostitute-related crimes.
"I want to try and help these folks, not just put them in jail and throw away the key," Gray said Monday afternoon.
Gray, a former police officer, said the tougher penalties would chase prostitutes out of the state and save cities police enforcement costs.
The bill calls for a mandatory 30-day jail term for first offenders.
Second offenders would face 180 days in jail and be ordered to complete a courtmandated rehabilitation program.
A third arrest could be charged as a felony with punishment up to one year in prison. The law would apply to prostitutes and their customers.
Gray said he worked to get a similar bill through the Legislature last year after Mesa police conducted a large prostitution sting. That bill never left the House because another state lawmaker didn’t think cities had the money to enforce the stricter law.
Gray said there would be initial higher costs to cities, but those would decline as prostitutes began leaving the state.
He modeled his bill after an already existing program in Phoenix that has had mixed results.
Jimmy Hays, an assistant city attorney, said it’s unclear how successful the Phoenix program works and whether it saves taxpayer money. He said nearly 75 percent of the prostitutes who complete the program are rehabilitated. However, many prostitutes never finish it, he said. For customers of prostitutes, however, the program is nearly 100 percent effective.
Kathleen Mitchell, who serves as program services coordinator for the Dignity program run by Catholic Social Services, said felony convictions make it harder for prostitutes to begin new lives.
Mitchell, a former prostitute, said tougher penalties won’t drive women from the streets. To do that, she said the state needs to spend more on prevention and other types of social programs that help reform prostitutes’ lifestyles.
"This would be a horrible step backwards," she said of the proposal.