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S.L. finally winning war against prostitution, prosecutors say

SHARE S.L. finally winning war against prostitution, prosecutors say

Prosecutors and police say they are winning the war against prostitution in Salt Lake City.

"Just try to find a prostitute," said Deputy Salt Lake District Attorney Simarjit Gill.Last year, the "circuit girls" - prostitutes who move from state to state to avoid prosecution - virtually disappeared from the streets after a determined effort to prosecute the pimps.

This year, some pimps remained beyond the state border and had the prostitutes wire their proceeds.

Prosecutors responded by charging prostitutes, who normally face only misdemeanor counts, with felonies such as money laundering and racketeering.

Just two years ago, Salt Lake was considered one of the easiest marks on the Western prostitution circuit. Using traditional vice-squad tactics, police targeted prostitutes and their customers in sting operations. Because of jail overcrowding, the women were booked and quickly released, perhaps a half-dozen times before their cases went to court. By then, they had skipped town.

When police Sgt. Ken Hansen took over the vice squad in 1996, he and Gill decided to seek the help of the prostitutes in going after the pimps.

Most prostitutes are loyal to their pimps, but authorities had a handle on the girls who were minors.

Gill estimates 40 percent of circuit girls are under the age of 18. Most claim to be older and carry false identification.

Hansen got permission from juvenile authorities to check the girls into detention centers, based upon the age they appeared to be. They were held until their true age and identity could be determined. By that time, their psychological ties to their pimps were loosened.

Meanwhile, vice officers would meet daily with the girls, befriending them and offering them ways to get out of the business: counseling, contact with family members or placement in a California program for runaways called Children of the Night.

The new strategy, informally dubbed "Our Daughters Program," has been enormously successful, the authorities say. With the help of the prostitutes, 42 pimps have been prosecuted, Gill said. All the pimps accepted plea bargain offers rather than risk going to trial.

"That's what people thought would never happen, that these prostitutes would come forward and testify," Gill said. "It was a paradigm shift, viewing them as victims, rather than as criminals."

Las Vegas and Dallas police departments have similar tactics, Hansen said.

This year, two adult prostitutes were recently charged with second-degree felony money laundering for sending their earnings to a pimp in Portland. Gill said the statute applied because the money came from an illegal activity and was to be used for committing more crimes.

The two women pleaded guilty to lesser counts of third-degree felony attempted money laundering and were ordered to leave Utah and stay out for five years.