A D.C. Superior Court judge yesterday sentenced a Washington prostitute to an unusually harsh one-year jail term as federal prosecutors stepped up their new campaign to rid residential areas of prostitutes.
Judge William S. Thompson sentenced Michele Griffith, 30, after Assistant U.S. Attorney James N. Owens urged the judge to send a message to other prostitutes showing that the courts "are serious about combating prostitution." Owens emphasized that Griffith has been arrested 25 times and convicted on eight occasions, almost all for soliciting for prostitution, in the last five years.
"I don't enjoy myself when I sentence people like that," Thompson said in an interview after the hearing. "But I could not live with myself if I didn't." Thompson, who law-enforcement officials say is not known for heavy sentencing in prostitution cases, said he had never before given a prostitute such a lengthy term.
Veteran law-enforcement officials said the sentence was the longest they could recall for a prostitution case and was the result of a decision by prosecutors, under pressure from residents living near the Logan Circle area, to crack down on the proliferation of prostitution.
In Griffith's case, prosecutors decided to charge her with violating the conditions of her release from jail -- that she not commit another crime -- pending prosecution on an earlier prostitution charge. Her conviction in the latest case violated those conditions, making her subject to a maximum one-year jail term for that violation, in addition to the three-month maximum sentence and $250 fine that judges can impose for prostitution. Thompson did not fine her.
The decision to press the jail release violation charge was also a first, Assistant U.S. Attorney Owens said in an interview. "We're using everything in our arsenal, throwing everything in the book at them," Owens said.
Griffith, of 1338 R St. NW, was arrested by undercover police on July 24 in the 1400 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW. She has never received the maximum sentence and fine, according to court records.
In most instances, D.C. judges have imposed light sentences, often merely a $50 fine, on the more than 1,000 prostitutes arrested each year in the city, even those with lengthy records, law-enforcement officials said.
As a result, Washington has become known along the East Coast as a "haven for pimps and prostitutes," Owens told the judge in urging that he impose the full 15-month sentence.
Under the new campaign, prosecutors are working with community organizations near the Logan Circle area, asking citizens to present their views at sentencing hearings in order to pressure judges to mete out harsher penalties.
Last week about 20 residents appeared for the first time at a sentencing. Three of them told D.C. Superior Court Judge Harriet R. Taylor that prostitution brought more serious crime to their neighborhood and should be dealt with severely. Taylor imposed a $100 fine and a 75-day jail term in that case. There were no additional charges pending in that case, so even that sentence was considered stiff by law enforcement officials.
No residents appeared yesterday because the hearing was announced shortly before it occurred and prosecutors did not have a chance to alert neighborhood residents.
Thompson told Owens that he would have been happy to hear from residents, but "no one needs to tell me about 14th Street, because I've been trying cases from there for years."
Opponents of jail terms for prostitutes have argued that jails will become overcrowded with persons who have committed victimless crimes if prostitutes are regularly given prison sentences, Owens said. But the prosecutor said that residents in neighborhoods with prostitutes might be able to convince judges that prostitution brings more serious crime to their communities.
Owens said he does not think the new campaign will require a large number of arrests of prostitutes, since the prosecutors' goal is simply to get word out on the street that heavy sentences and fines are now being imposed. He said that once a number of prostitutes have received jail sentences, other prostitutes would be encouraged to leave the city, for economic reasons if nothing else.