In Seattle's approach to prostitution, city attorney made a pivot

SEATTLE — For five years, the city of Seattle has touted its unique approach in targeting the buyers of sex rather than the prostitutes themselves. While the number of cases filed against prostitutes dropped dramatically in 2012 and 2013, it has increased again slightly in recent years.

KIRO 7 obtained data from City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office that shows the number of cases filed for prostitution and for sexual exploitation since 2010.

Prostitution data for Seattle

Holmes said the increase in prostitution cases in 2014 through 2016 came after his office realized many women were not seeking the diversion program called LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.

“If the defense bar, representing people accused of prostitution, know that we are de-emphasizing it, unfortunately they will then recommend clients not even take LEAD as an option,” Holmes said. “We had to adjust our prosecution policies over time to make sure that women in the life that want to get out, that need some incentive to get out, that it’s not an option to continue.”

Holmes said he therefore pivoted to use the real possibility of prosecution, as a way of encouraging people to take advantage of LEAD instead.

Still, the target is on the men who demand commercial sex.

For two years, there has been a “buyer beware” program where Internet ads will pop up for anyone using search terms that suggest possible solicitation of sex.

Holmes told KIRO 7 the measure of success would be twofold: “One is some of the arrest and prosecution statistics you’ve been talking about. Those will vary over time for a variety of reasons that are not in our control. The more important measure, I believe, is what I’ve been receiving from organizations like the Organization for Prostitution Survivors. For instance, in essence, the message is out on the street that women in particular, especially if they are in pretty serious circumstances, know that they can report an assault, for instance -- something that they were reluctant to do.”

Alisa Bernard, a former sex worker, said she has also seen an increase in the women seeking help at the Organization for Prostitution Survivors.

Bernard said she left prostitution about 10 years ago, before the city’s approach shifted.

“There was this quiet understanding that we’re going to arrest the women, but we’re definitely not going to arrest the buyer,” she said.

Now that the paradigm has changed, she said it has also changed the community perception and understanding of the women involved in the business. She, as well as most other survivors she knows, has experienced sexual assault and domestic violence.

She was also initially working with a so-called "boyfriend pimp" before being hired by someone for a two-year period.

Bernard said that arrest records made it difficult for women to exit that life and be able to rent an apartment or get a job.

“When you arrest the women within prostitution, you’re just creating more barriers to them exiting,” she said.

Holmes said it may take a few years for the policy to show clearer results.