“Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness.” –Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) American abolitionist, anarchist, and legal theorist.

Over the past few decades prostitution, like other segments of society, has undergone a process of politicalization. As a result, it has gained supporters who advocate for the legalization of the sex industry in order to secure more humane working conditions for those employed therein, building upon the rationale that efforts at eradication that have happened almost since the dawn of civilization have failed thus far.

At the same time, their polar opposites rally against this oldest of professions by underscoring the direct links between pornography and sexual commerce that exploits society’s less fortunate individuals; not to mention the threat to public health.

Far from merely being an economic exchange of currency for services between consenting adults, they allege prostitution often attaches itself to the unsavory social ills of violence, narcotic abuse, and class oppression. Contemporary activists have even likened this current manifestation to the by-gone era practices of slavery and indentured servitude.

Regardless of what side one chooses to be on, the social impact of prostitution forces governmental involvement in one form or the other.

Locally, the city attorney’s office has become drawn into the fray through the prompting of both community members and the L.A. Police Department. This was due specifically to the influx of sexual trafficking, initially along the Figueroa corridor from about 120th Street north to Vernon Avenue, and then to Western Avenue after police intervention pushed the activity there.

Deputy City Attorney Sharee Sanders of the city’s Neighborhood Prosecutor Program (NPP) talked about her office’s activities in the wake of civil and law enforcement complaints.

Once NPP’s primary focus on prosecution and adjudication has been attended to, “diversion” programs have been devised to channel offenders away from illicit behaviors. Simply put, a diversion program endeavors to help the offender avoid prosecution, while simultaneously providing relief to the courts, police departments, and probation offices crunched by an already overwhelmed legal system.

Diversion programs are tailored both for prostitutes and “johns,” with the major difference being that prostitutes may enroll in these programs for free, while their customers must pay for classes. Both tracts include education about sexually transmitted diseases and other issues, while sex workers may be diverted to substance abuse counseling, classes on self-esteem, career training, and other avenues offering viable alternatives to life on the streets.

Concrete numbers regarding the success rate for reforming prostitutes were not available, but Sanders offered tangible evidence for the opposite end of the diversion program. She states that over the last four years “only two out of almost 200 arrestees have re-offended,” ample proof of the value of the plan.

In spite of this success, economic woes have affected their efforts, as Sanders notes.

“Because of budget cuts, we’ve lost more than half of our neighborhood prosecutors,” she said, pointing out that staff attorneys have shrunk from 24 attorneys to just seven.

Outspoken community activist Najee Ali of Project Islamic Hope is among those focusing of the problem of prostitution within the community. Alluding to his past as a former gang member who encountered adverse experiences with law enforcement and other representatives of authority, he suggests that a good percentage of people in need have difficulty relating to those officially sanctioned to reach out to them.

“It’s critical to have culturally-sensitive programs to reach the at-risk populace, including streetwalkers,” he explained.

The targeted segment might be better served he suggests, via community-based venues more sensitive to the needs of those they seek to reach.

“These are our mothers, sisters, daughters, our neighbors. They are not ‘outsiders,’ they’re ‘insiders,’” Ali said.

He attributes his success as an activist to the trust he’s built up within the community, and as such he is less willing (than the powers that be) to criminalize women who need help.