A bill aimed at cracking down on prostitution is finding widespread support among residents in the Logan Circle neighborhood, who have been trying for years to stamp out this lingering problem in their community.
The Anti-Prostitution Vehicle Impoundment Amendment, sponsored by D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), would give the police authority to impound or boot vehicles used by those who solicit prostitutes. It would also set mandatory minimum jail sentences for repeat offenders.
Under the terms of the bill, a second conviction for prostitution or soliciting for prostitution would bring a mandatory 15 days in jail. A third conviction would mean 30 days in jail. People who have their cars impounded would have to pay a $150 fine, plus towing fees.
The bill would amend an earlier law that permitted the seizure and sale of cars used to pick up prostitutes. In 1998, the D.C. Court of Appeals declared that it was unconstitutional to sell a vehicle seized during a first offense for sexual solicitation.
The amended measure, Evans said, is meant to make the city a place that is not profitable for prostitutes and their pimps.
"If a jurisdiction is not hospitable for making money, they will go elsewhere," Evans said at a public hearing last week. "Car seizure is not intended to seize cars, but to get people not to come here."
The council's Judiciary Committee has not set a date to vote on the bill.
Clearing the streets of prostitution and the drugs and other crimes that seem to go with it has been an ongoing battle for the Logan Circle Community Association. Residents say much of the prostitution traffic has moved off the main circle but remains a problem a few blocks away.
The community group stepped up its anti-prostitution efforts this summer after neighbors noticed an upsurge in streetwalkers, including some who began showing up in the afternoon as well as at night.
Jennifer Trock, an association board member, said the community has worked closely with the police department to beef up patrols and to make sure streetlights get repaired. Residents have also waged a letter-writing campaign to urge that judges impose stricter sentences and that business owners crack down on loitering.
Donald Smith, who has lived in the Logan Circle area for 30 years, said that despite increased community policing, there are difficulties getting rid of prostitution "once and for all" in the neighborhood.
"It's been a long struggle to kick the prostitutes out. We need mandatory sentences to get rid of the problem," he said. "Confiscating cars would go a long way in being a deterrent to this kind of activity as well."
Critics of the bill say mandatory sentencing will restrict judges and also further crowd the jails. Also, the one-size-fits-all approach fails to address the underlying causes of prostitution, according to Laura E. Hankins, special counsel to the director of the Public Defender Service.
"Taking the time to learn why someone engages in prostitution and trying to change that fundamental situation will address the city's problem," Hankins said at last week's hearing. "Fifteen days, 30 days in jail . . . won't treat a drug problem, train someone for a job, feed a family or find permanent housing for a street kid."
But Evans said the bill is directed at prostitutes who are involved in rings and bring in money for a pimp, not those who might be runaways or drug abusers. Treatment and drug rehabilitation will be an option for those who want to avoid jail, according to provisions in the bill.
"In many ways one sounds so heartless in dealing with this, but we have to have a practical approach," Evans said. "We're not going to solve prostitution, not by passing laws, and after 15 years that's the bottom line. But when we put these prohibitions in place, it works. If we hit it really hard, they'll just go someplace else."