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Prostitutes will get treatment, not jail

Peter Sharp, a motel owner on 34th Street, says prostitutes approach tourists in his parking lot.

Karen Mullins, a Fossil Park resident off Fourth Street N, says used condoms litter the alleys in her neighborhood.

As frustration grows over prostitution, state lawmakers have passed a two-year pilot program offering prostitutes in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties drug treatment instead of jail. The law also increases penalties statewide for repeat offenders.

The bill (HB415) is before Gov. Jeb Bush for his signature.

"The old school used to be throw them in jail," said Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, the bill's co-sponsor. "When we know that 90 percent of these prostitutes have substance abuse addiction, we know that jail is not the answer. We need treatment."

While the state considers new initiatives, the city of St. Petersburg is thinking of a way to crack down on prostitution. A task force met for the first time this week.

"It's a revolving door," said Ginny Lomagno, a task force member and president of the Fourth Street Business Association. "Police arrest the prostitute and before the ink is dry on the paperwork, they're back on the streets."

A misdemeanor, prostitution arrests in St. Petersburg have increased steadily since 1998. Across the country, states and municipalities are trying nontraditional methods to reduce prostitution, a crime often fueled by addiction.

Officials hope stricter laws can make a difference.

The two-year pilot project in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties is called "Project HOPE" for Healthy Options Promoting Esteem. The state has allocated $100,000 for each county in fiscal year 2002-03.

Prostitutes in Pinellas and Hillsborough who are convicted twice or more can get screened for drugs and enter a treatment program.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Cal Henderson supports the project.

"Any drug treatment that we can give is positive," he said.

Farkas, the bill's sponsor, originally wanted the drug treatment for prostitutes statewide. But the state did not have the money.

The pilot project also has a component for people who solicit prostitutes. Someone convicted for the first or second time can attend a rehabilitative program and pay a $350 fine.

The bill also amends the law for repeat offenders. Anyone arrested a third time for selling or soliciting sex will be charged with a third-degree felony. Repeat solicitors also could get their driver's license revoked for at least one year.

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