The stretch of 47th Street that runs between Cicero and Ashland avenues is known as a major corridor for prostitution. Photo by Lucio Villa.

Tammy Gaultney’s first stint in jail came when she was 36 years old. A pimp had brought her from her hometown in Muskegan, Mich., to Santa Monica, Calif., where she was arrested and charged with prostitution. “Drugs led me to do things I never thought I would do,” Gaultney said. In the six years since her first arrest, she has been charged with prostitution 37 times across four states.

“I lost my kids because of drugs, so I took to the streets. … Ever since then I’ve been constantly in jail all over the country,” she said in May, while walking laps around the dog park near the Haymarket Rehabilitation Center, where she attended Prostitution Anonymous meetings and worked to get clean.

Gaultney has wispy brown hair and a soft voice, and lets out a small, self-conscious laugh when she mentions particularly unfunny things, like the abuse she said she suffered at the hands of police and pimps. She now writes frequent letters to her three sons, who were 3, 4 and 14 years old when she lost custody.

Since completing her time at Haymarket in August, Gaultney has been on the job hunt. Before ending up in prostitution, she worked in food service and manufacturing, and received both her GED diploma and a certificate in welding. And she just went through a two-week job-seeking re-entry program at Roosevelt University. But, with her rap sheet that includes two felony convictions for prostitution, she is facing an uphill battle in finding steady work off the streets.

Gaultney’s felony convictions came when her charge was upgraded, thanks to an Illinois prostitution law that is among the harshest in the country. Under the law, any repeat prostitution misdemeanor is eligible to be upgraded to a felony—one of two states allowing such upgrade after a single charge.

On paper, sex workers are still not as likely to face felony charges as their patrons, who can be charged with a felony on their first offense under the Illinois Safe Children’s Act, which was enacted in 2010.

But a Chicago Reporter analysis of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office data shows that prostitution-related felonies are being levied almost exclusively against sex workers. During the past four years, they made up 97 percent of the 1,266 prostitution-related felony convictions in Cook County. And the number is growing: Felony convictions among sex workers increased by 68 percent between 2008 and 2011.

Meanwhile, since the Illinois Safe Children’s Act, only three prostitution patrons have ever been charged with a felony.

The state’s attorney’s office and the Chicago Police Department declined to comment for this story.

“It’s really disconcerting,” said Daria Mueller, associate director of state affairs for Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Along with working on several pieces of sex trafficking and prostitution legislation, Mueller helped plan the Women In Need of Gender-specific Services felony prostitution court—known as WINGS court—that was established by the Circuit Court of Cook County to connect women trying to leave the sex trade with needed resources.

In the year and half since the court began, Mueller has seen a “skyrocketing” number of women facing prostitution felonies. “I feel like that [the upgrade] has been happening much more easily, quickly [and] frequently,” Mueller said.

For the 149 people convicted of prostitution felonies during the first four months of this year, the upgrade that happens almost automatically makes leaving the sex trade even more difficult, Mueller said. “Prostitution should not ever be upgraded to a felony,” she said. “What we need is more options for these individuals. Sending them to jail is not the answer.”

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The decision to make a felony upgrade is made in concert with an arresting officer and an assistant state’s attorney at the Office of Felony Review. If the attorney does not sign off on the upgrade, the police department can request to override the decision.

Marissa Claxon, criminal defense attorney with Cabrini-Green Legal Aid, said that kind of upgrade is fairly rare in criminal law. “I can’t think of another charge that functions that way—that the exact same conduct becomes a felony just because you’ve been convicted of it once before,” Claxon said.

In 2006, the Mayor’s Office on Domestic Violence completed an Intersystem Assessment of Prostitution in Chicago to better understand how Chicago was arresting, charging and convicting prostitution-related offenses. “The Chicago Police Department has a departmentwide policy of upgrading charges … whenever appropriate and possible,” the report found. According to the assessment, the district commander and a supervisor in the vice-control unit reviewed all prostitution arrest reports to ensure all eligible offenders are charged with felonies.

Samir Goswami, a contributor to the Intersystem Assessment as the former assistant director of policy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said a community-led crackdown on prostitution in the early 2000s led to police’s strict interpretation of the law.

“Women were arrested for prostitution many times [and kept] getting misdemeanors. [Community policing] groups put a lot of pressure to increase charges to felonies,” Goswami said. As a result, the number of women convicted of prostitution-related felonies increased by about 45 percent from 2003 to 2004.

Overall, the report exposed an imbalanced system that came down hard on people in prostitution but rarely held their patrons accountable. The assessment recommended, “prioritizing the arrest of customers, pimps/arrangers, and traffickers … [and ensuring] that customers who reoffend receive escalating penalties.”

In 2008, Goswami created the End Demand Illinois campaign in an effort to shift the focus of prostitution law enforcement from those selling sex to those buying. The campaign’s first major legislative success came in 2010 with the passing of the Illinois Safe Children’s Act. Along with shielding minors in the sex trade from prosecution, the law increased first-time patronizing charges to a felony.

But, under current state law, an offender must be caught in the act or in transaction to be charged with a patronizing felony. Even on repeat charges, attempting to pick up someone for prostitution remains a misdemeanor. People in the sex trade, however, can face a felony for “performing, offering, or agreeing to perform” an act of prostitution for their second offense.

Gaultney said such a broad definition makes it easy for officers to arrest people they know have a history. “They’ve even … [thrown] me in a paddy wagon to go to jail just for walking down the sidewalk,” she said.

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Local law enforcement agencies have been vocal about their support for End Demand efforts. The Cook County Sherriff’s Office organized the first National Day of Johns Arrests in 2011 and created a “John’s School” curriculum for arrested patrons.

In 2008, Cook County adopted the Public Morals Nuisance Violation Ordinance, which significantly increased fines for patronizing charges.

Offenders who once walked away paying only $100 in bail for their misdemeanor charge now owe anywhere from $500 to $1,000 in fines, plus impoundment fees for their vehicles.

The Chicago police has also launched programs to deter potential patrons. In 2005, in a controversial effort to shame offenders, the department began posting the mug shots and other information about  arrested johns online.

But these efforts haven’t necessarily led to more charges under state statutes. A review of the Chicago police’s website by researchers at DePaul University’s Social Science Research Center, for example, showed that less than a quarter of the online offenders were charged under state law in the past two years.

Criminal defense attorney Chris M. Shepherd said this might explain some of the discrepancy in prostitution felonies. “For whatever reason, solicitors are usually charged under the city ordinance, and the alleged prostitutes are usually charged under state law,” Shepherd said.

Multiple violations of a city or county ordinance don’t result in a steeper fine or longer jail sentence. Chicago Municipal Code 8-8-060, under which Chicago police are charging most johns, does not outline increased consequences for repeat offenders.

William Leen, a sergeant working in the Cook County Sheriff’s Office Vice Unit, said county-ordinance fines seem to be deterring more patrons than misdemeanor charges did. “It’s really hitting them in the pocket book,” he said. “We’re not seeing repeat customers like in the past, when we were going through the courts.”

Some of the money collected will finance support services for people trying to leave the sex trade. Human trafficking legislation approved by the Illinois General Assembly in August dictates that half of collected fines will go toward programs for sex trafficking victims.

But some advocates question whether a steep fine or a rap sheet is more likely to keep patrons away. “When you treat it in an administrative manner, you are denigrating it [to] a lesser crime,” said Jody Raphael, a senior research fellow at the DePaul University College of Law working closely with End Demand. “It becomes like a traffic ticket.”

Violators of city and county codes aren’t always arrested, as officers can issue a citation on site and schedule a court date during an administrative hearing. Chicago police reports show men are even less likely to be arrested now than they were in 2005. Men accounted for 34 percent of prostitution-related arrests in 2010, a decrease of nearly 7 percentage points since 2005.

Rachael Morgan said she never saw a john arrested during the eight years she spent in prostitution. “They talk to a man and let him go, and we get put in cuffs,” she said. “They would ask [the john], ‘Do you know who you’re picking up?’ They talked about us like we were lower than earth.”

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Data from the state’s attorney’s office show that progress has been made in convicting pimps and traffickers of felony crimes. In July 2011, Illinois prostitution law was revised to put all pimping and advancing charges under “promoting prostitution,” punishable by a felony on first offense. As of April 2012, 37 people had been convicted on felony promotion charges.

Working closely with End Demand, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has made sex trafficking one of her department’s highest priorities. Since creating the Human Trafficking Initiative in 2010, Alvarez’ office has convicted 17 individuals of felony human trafficking. “More than ever before, we are focusing our efforts on rescuing women and children caught up in this crime and punishing the traffickers to the fullest extent of the law,” Alvarez said in a news release in May.

But critics say that such rescue rhetoric means little without lessening the punishment for those arrested on prostitution charges. “There’s an across-the-board belief that all sex workers are victims, but arresting them is further victimization,” said Serpent Libertine, director of the Chicago Sex Workers Outreach Project.

Rachel Lovell, senior research associate at Case Western Reserve University’s Dr. Semi J. and Ruth W. Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education, also questioned how much the patron-focused approach helps. “If these women are victims, why are they still being felonized?” Lovell said. “There’s a big gap in logic there.”

Lovell said increased penalties for johns could have unintended consequences for those in the sex trade.

An analysis of data from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority by DePaul University’s Social Science Research Center, where Lovell worked until this year, showed sex workers were being charged with soliciting for a prostitute, though the statute was intended to net their patrons and pimps. The law targeted “one who solicits another for the purpose of prostitution; or arranges or offers to arrange a meeting of persons for the purpose of prostitution.”

Though the law was repealed in 2011 and rewritten as “promoting prostitution,” the Chicago police’s website shows 73 people were still charged with the statute after its revision. Many of these were transgender women, implying those in the sex trade may still be facing incorrect charges, Lovell said.

Under the revised law, “there’s still some ambiguity,” said research specialist Jessica Speer, who contributed to research on the impact of End Demand legislation on sex workers. “It still penalizes people [in prostitution] who work together, maybe for safety reasons. It just increases felony charges across the board.”

Regardless of the approach, advocates on both sides contend that a felony record only makes it harder for people wanting to leave prostitution. “Whether you call it sex work or sexual exploitation, we all agree that women need more options,” Goswami said. “If someone gets a felony record, they get denied all kinds of public services that are needed for their recovery.”

Such low levels of support mean high rates of recidivism for people in prostitution. According to a 2002 study of women in Cook County Jail by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 42 percent of women incarcerated for prostitution had been in jail more than six times.

Recent legislation and programming aims to increase alternative sentencing options and social services for people in prostitution. The Prostitution Alternatives Round Table, a project of the Chicago Coalition of the Homeless, helped enact a first-offender probation law in 2007 that provides rehab services for first-time felons. The coalition also organizes a group called the Survivors Advocacy Group Empowered, composed of women like Gaultney who have left the sex trade to advocate for more just prostitution legislation.

But until advocates can address Illinois’ upgrade, sex workers, primarily women, will continue to rack up felony charges.

“It does discourage me. I’m thinking I’m not going to make it and I’m scared,” Gaultney said about her fears for the future. She’s attended some employment seminars, where they distribute lists of employers who will hire ex-felons.

When asked what is most needed to aid those in prostitution, Gaultney was quick to answer. “Social services. Education for women—that they can make it, and there are places to help,” she said.“If I wasn’t [educated], I would still be discouraged and want to go back out the way I used to live.”