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Social Issues Mon Jan 09 2012
By Sarah Ostman
"Nina" smoked crack and sold sex on Chicago's South Side for 33 years, racking up dozens of arrests, spending years in prison and losing custody of her seven children. One morning in November 2010, she tried to sell sex to an undercover police officer and wound up in jail again. She thought she was heading back to prison, but instead, she was offered a spot in an experimental new courts program aimed at rehabilitating prostitutes.
There are an estimated 16,000 to 25,000 prostitutes in the Chicago area, and their stories are remarkably similar. Most were sexually abused as children, started using drugs early and ran away from home. Most started selling sex between the ages of 12 and 14, oftentimes after being recruited by pimps. And most get arrested repeatedly -- dozens, even hundreds of times -- before they get off the streets, if they manage to get off the streets at all.
In January 2011, Cook County started handling these cases in a new way. Instead of prison time, women convicted of felony prostitution are now offered drug treatment, job training and other services in the community. The program -- called WINGS (Women in Need of Gender Specific Services) -- is based on a growing belief that women in the sex trade should be treated not as criminals, but as victims.
This is Nina's story.
Sarah Ostman is a freelance reporter and audio producer. She lives in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood. This piece was supported with a Local Reporting Award from the Chicago Community Trust.
Read more about sex trafficking in Chicago on Gapers Block.