New City Trick

Judge Jim Sullivan has a different way of dealing with crack whores -- don't just jail them, treat them for their addiction

The day she was released, Tammy bought groceries and shared a pizza with her new roommates.

Then she announced she was going to go out and get cigarettes.

Instead, Tammy walked to a gas station and bought a pipe. Not long after, she scored some crack.

Jill Pearson
Judge Jim Sullivan: "It seemed as though we were missing the boat."
Jennifer Silverberg
Judge Jim Sullivan: "It seemed as though we were missing the boat."

She never went home. She never showed up for drug treatment.

"I ran the streets," Tammy says. "I hustled at Jefferson and Winnebago at night."

When she got tired of turning tricks and smoking crack, Tammy napped on the porch of a nearby vacant house.

A probation officer spotted her working the street, but she saw him, too, and took off running.

"I got away," she says.

Two nights later, working the same South St. Louis neighborhood, Tammy wasn't fast enough.

She spotted a tall man walking slowly up the street toward her. His face was hidden by a hat.

She didn't pay too much attention -- until he came within an arm's length and spoke.

"Tammy?" he asked.

She knew the voice and started to run, but he grabbed her.

Tammy says it was more like a "body slam."

The two toppled over on the sidewalk. She called to a friend for help, but someone else yelled: "Step back! He's a judge!"

The friend froze.

Moments later, Tammy was surrounded by police.

Judge Jim Sullivan, the man who tackled Tammy while he waited for the cops, watched her getting carted off to jail.

Tammy's fourth run was over.

Her last chance, wasted.

Like most prostitutes working the streets of St. Louis, Tammy Sue Curtner is a drug addict.

A 33-year-old mother with wavy brown hair and pale skin, Tammy traded her body for drugs, a blowjob for twenty bucks. She'd turn tricks in an alley, in a stranger's car, on a dirty communal mattress in a vacant building littered with broken bottles and used needles.

Her johns were downtown businessmen on the way to work in the morning, construction workers on lunch breaks, married men bored with their subdivision lives.

"I've met all types of guys, straight down to the weirdest and the nastiest," she says. "Lawyers, doctors, straight down to bums."

After she collected her fee, she took the money and bought crack cocaine, her only pimp.

The link between drugs and prostitution is so strong that anyone who wants to find one just needs to look for the other. By one estimate, nine of every ten prostitutes in the city is an addict.

For Tammy, crack was a "twenty-second rush" that made her oblivious to what was going on around her:

"It takes away the real you -- some girls like that."

But the real Tammy kept getting in trouble with police: They'd arrest her, and she'd wind up facing yet another city charge.

In early 2000, Tammy was once again in Sullivan's court, facing a multitude of new and old charges, tickets for infractions such as disturbing the peace, street demonstration, public drinking and prostitution.

She recalls Sullivan walking past her in the courthouse, saying, "We have a good program for you, Ms. Curtner."

The program he referred to is his own creation, the result of his own epiphany. Sullivan knew, because he saw the same women over and over, that the punishments the city courts were handing down weren't having any effect. He knew getting through to these women would require a different approach, one that saw them as something other than incorrigible crack whores.

"The people that appear on the docket, for the most part, who are charged with these violations, are someone's daughter, someone's sister or wife or loved one," Sullivan says, "and it seemed as though we were missing the boat."

So in 2000, Sullivan launched the female drug court, which most cops, lawyers, and women refer to as "prostitution court." Modeled after a community-court program in Manhattan, it's an innovative approach to dealing with prostitutes that's won praise from police and health officials. Under pressure from neighborhood groups all over St. Louis, city politicians -- with the apparent exception of Mayor Francis Slay -- strongly endorse Sullivan's efforts.

To understand what's new about the program, here's a refresher on the way things used to be: Before prostitution court, prostitutes in the city were arrested, arraigned, fined and released. They'd go back to the street and turn tricks. Sometimes they'd return to pay their fines; sometimes they didn't.

"It was a never-ending cycle because they would never show back up in court," Sullivan says.

"Police officers were reduced to taxicab drivers because they would arrest them on the street on a bench warrant and bring them down, and they'd be released because, at one time, there was no room at the inn -- we didn't have any space at the jail," Sullivan says.

The system wasn't working.

Neighborhood groups were angry, female residents of areas frequented by prostitutes were tired of being mistaken for hookers by johns, prostitutes were still working for dope money and police were frustrated with the judicial system.

It was a flesh merry-go-round that Sullivan decided to try to stop.

His plan was to force the prostitutes to make a choice: Get help or get locked up.

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