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Do Prostitution Arrests Help Women Get Out Of Sex Trade? Trafficking Survivor Says No

Mariah Nicol Photography

Over the past five years, Jacksonville police have made about 1,000 arrests for buying, selling, or soliciting sex. Eight of every 10 arrests involved female offenders — many for second or third offenses.  

Jacksonville police officers said the threat of arrest for prostitution is a deterrent, but other cities are focusing less on jail time.

Jamie Rosseland is one of those people who were arrested. Her second  prostitution arrest was in 2013, at the age of 25.

She remembers the day her mugshot and charge were published in a Jacksonville newsletter called the Victim’s Advocate as part of a column called “Shame, Shame, Shame.”

“It’s really hard to know that’s how people know you is that you’ve been in a publication like that,” she said.

She believes those publications fuel a stigma against women who are arrested for prostitution.

“How could I even know that I was a victim of human trafficking when society has labeled me ‘disgusting; whore; worthless?’ ” Rosseland said.

History Of Abuse  

“I think in my story I started off with not having any self worth,” she said. “I think that was like the root of it was I never felt good enough without a man’s approval.”

Rosseland was in an abusive relationship. When she finally got out of it, she met another man, who she said saw her vulnerability as a business opportunity.

“I was lured in that he would take care of my needs; that he would meet my needs. That he would serve and offer some sort of protection and that I had some sort of control in it,” she said. “It was this terrible illusion.”

She said he was not only in control of her, he had her belongings, like her ID and her keys. She said she wanted to leave her trafficker. But with an arrest record, getting away wasn’t easy.

“I felt that there was no life to go back to,” Rosseland said. “How could I ever get a job? How could anybody ever look at me as a viable, creative, hardworking human being again?”

Seeing how difficult it can be to break the cycle of prostitution and arrests, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes drastically changed his city’s approach to it in 2012.

“Like basically every other jurisdiction, we were focused heavily on the sale side of the transaction,” Holmes said.  

City data shows twice as many women were arrested for prostitution than men who were attempting to buy sex.

Seattle has since flipped those numbers, focusing law enforcement stings on the buyers. Holmes said one night Seattle police arrested 204 men seeking sex at a massage parlor.

If a woman is caught selling sex in Seattle, she isn’t automatically arrested. Police can direct her to services, including job training, instead of jail. If she is arrested, judges can sentence her to services. Jail is reserved for people who refuse assistance.

“The message is: We want to help. At the same time, this conduct is not optional,” Holmes said.

In Jacksonville, police don’t offer women services instead of arresting them. Once they’re in custody, they do get a medical screening and mental-health evaluation. And they can get referred to an in-jail substance-abuse and mental-health treatment program called the Matrix House, but only if they’re in longer than a day or two.

“They may make a plea and then they’re back out the next day, so the Matrix House only comes into play when we’ve got them for a little bit,” said Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Investigations Director Ron Lendvay.

The Law

Lendvay said JSO has an obligation to help women who are victims, but it’s also obligated to enforce the law.

“Our citizens who want a good quality of life in their neighborhood are equally of value as far as deserving our services to make sure their neighborhoods aren’t fraught with drugs and prostitution,” he said.

Lendvay said prostitution stings occur when people call police to report the activity. If officers come across signs of trafficking — meaning women are being forced into sex work — Integrity Special Investigations takes over. Lieutenant Kevin Goff oversees that unit.

“We can go through the service providers, and they can provide housing, clothing, job placement, counseling,medical services,” Goff said.

Human Trafficking

JSO works with a number of nonprofits and service providers called the Northeast Florida Human Trafficking Coalition.

Goff believes arresting women for prostitution does help them, but it’s common for women charged with prostitution to refuse services.

“If you do not arrest them, they will continue in that lifestyle and they’ll continue on because there’s no repercussion for it,” he said.

According to JSO, as of June 2016 more than  350 prostitution arrests of 788 were repeat offenders over the last five years.  

He said officers check on women who are rearrested.

“If they get rearrested then my guys will see if they want to talk again and say ‘Hey, how’s everything going? We still got these services, they’re available if you want them,’ ” Goff said.

And, he said, if a woman is a true victim of trafficking, but arrested for prostitution, she can go through the legal process of having it wiped from her record.

A New Day

These days, Rosseland is an assistant marketing manager at Rethreaded. The nonprofit employs survivors of the sex trade.

Her transition out of her old lifestyle began with the in-jail treatment program Matrix House. She was offered it only after her mother wrote a letter to her judge, insisting she be receive treatment through the program. She still holds onto the letter today.

“Arresting women for prostitution just makes absolutely no sense,” Rosseland said. “It doesn't solve any problem. It’s not a deterrent.”

She argues most women arrested for prostitution don’t identify as being trafficked.

“Most women will say that's my boyfriend — that’s my old man — and they’re not going to identify as being a survivor of human trafficking, and that we need to dig deeper,” she said.

Goff said over the last few years, JSO’s mentality has changed to acknowledge many women arrested for prostitution are the true victims and traffickers are the problem.

But Lendvay added, “You can never get to the traffickers or the pimps, as people call them, without working through the girls.”

Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.

Lindsey Kilbride was WJCT's special projects producer until Aug. 28, 2020. She reported, hosted and produced podcasts like Odd Ball, for which she was honored with a statewide award from the Associated Press, as well as What It's Like. She also produced VOIDCAST, hosted by Void magazine's Matt Shaw, and the ADAPT podcast, hosted by WJCT's Brendan Rivers.