Faced With Overcrowded Prisons, Chicago Considers Ending Felony Arrests For Prostitution

Elected officials in Chicago are calling for a moratorium on felony charges for prostitution to reduce overcrowding at Cook County jail. The jail now houses 10,008 detainees and is likely to exceed the maximum capacity of 10,150 soon. In a news conference Wednesday, several county commissioners pointed to the law’s disproportionate focus on non-violent felonies like prostitution:

With the Cook County jail nearing capacity, Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, backed by Board President Toni Preckwinkle and several other commissioners, is asking State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to place a moratorium on charging suspected prostitutes with a felony. . . .

“Cook County puts too much focus on non-violent felonies,” Preckwinkle said at a news conference Wednesday. “We’re holding people in detention who ultimately will be sentenced to probation and released or have their charges against them dropped.”

“Cook County jail far exceeds the national percentage for people held pre-trial,” she said, citing U.S. Department of Justice statistic showing 48 percent of suspects remain behind bars as their cases wind their way through court.

According to Illinois Department of Corrections records, there were 127 prostitution admissions in 2012, costing $2 million. End Demand Illinois, an advocacy group against sex traffickers, estimates that holding an individual facing felony prostitution charges costs Cook County $5.3 to $9.5 million every year. Illinois has one of the harshest prostitution policies in the nation; only 7 other states still charge prostitution as a felony, and Illinois is the only state to allow felony prosecution after one offense.


At best, targeting sex workers is unproductive; at worst, it discourages these women — most of whom were recruited into the sex trade at age 16 or younger — from leaving or reporting their pimps. Moreover, the criminal justice system tends to dole out sentences with a racial bias. A recent study conducted in Cook County found that black defendants are at least 30 percent more likely to be sent to prison by a judge than white defendants for the same crime.

Cook County may be motivated to relax this draconian policy by budget troubles, if not by compassion. State prison spending has more than tripled over the last 3 decades, making it the second fastest-growing burden on state budgets. The problem has become so unsustainable that even conservative social scientists now recommend alternative sentencing programs that would reduce the prison population by at least one-third. While the moratorium on felony charges is a stopgap measure, the Illinois Senate is also considering a bill to do away with felony sentencing for prostitution entirely.