Undercover cops in Orange County, California, spend a lot of time parked outside low-rent motels and massage parlors. They slowly cruise major thoroughfares where girls in tight skirts and high-heeled shoes walk up and down the streets. They monitor apartment complexes in high-end parts of town that house secret brothels.
"It's not a secret where one will go to get a prostitute," says Susan Kang Schroeder, prosecutor and chief of staff for the Orange County District Attorney's Office. "Everyone knows where to go. It's everywhere."
When the bust happens, undercover cops storm in—and there's a flurry of arrests.
But now, unlike before, police are punishing the customers—the so-called "Johns" in a novel way. If they're convicted or take a plea deal, which most do, their names and photos are posted on the DA's website. It's in part to offset the minimal penalties for buying sex, but also to notify the community and to shame so-called "sex purchasers." The photos stay up for a year.
"Realistically, no one's going to get jail time for purchasing sex," Schroeder says, especially in California due to prison over-crowding. "And before the program, they would get a slap on the wrist, the judge would probably sentence them to fines or community service, and nobody would ever know about it."
The public shaming is part of a larger program to prosecute sex trafficking, and a dramatic shift in how the DA treats sex workers. California authorities are increasingly seeing them as victims instead of criminals.
Part of this paradigm shift comes from Proposition 35, a voter-approved ballot measure that created harsher penalties for sex traffickers including longer prison sentences, requiring sex traffickers to register as sex offenders, law enforcement training on sex trafficking, and requiring sex traffickers to pay criminal fines that would go toward services for their victims.
"The goal became rescuing women from their pimps and redirecting their lives, reducing prostitution one life at a time," Steve Marcin, an Orange County police lieutenant wrote in a 2013 article for FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.
Part of that rescue plan to break the cycle of prostitution by limiting the supply of men willing to purchase sex by shaming them.
However, privacy advocates like Lee Rowland, the senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, say shaming johns just leads to further misery. "These are real human being with real lives which can be ruined," she says.
Orange County is an affluent community in Southern California—home to beautiful beaches, Disneyland and The Real Housewives. Schroeder says the wealth in the area as well as the tourism draws a lot of sex traffickers. Beyond the Cheesecake Factory restaurants the size of a city block and manicured lawns, there's a hardscrabble edge to Orange County, particularly in Anaheim. Even with the tip of the Matterhorn visible from Katella Avenue, poverty blossoms. Cheap multi-family housing packed alongside auto shops and liquor stores, as well as a large chunk of the working population employed by low wage services jobs, create ghetto pockets right outside the Magic Kingdom, making it prime territory for sex trafficking.
"We'd get complaints from business owners saying, 'Hey, there's prostitutes standing outside my business, they're hurting my business, come arrest them,'" Schroeder recounts. "So law enforcement would go and arrest them, sometime twice a day, the same people. They would go to jail, they would get booked, and they'd get out."
What they didn't understand at the time, Schroeder says, was that the girls weren't acting alone, and they weren't acting of their own free will. They were being trafficked.
The goal became rescuing women from their pimps and redirecting their lives, reducing prostitution one life at a time.
If the county wanted to get rid of the prostitutes, Schroeder says, they had to stop going after the women, and instead, go after the men—both the men that traffic the women and the ones that buy sex from them.
Most prostitutes in Schroeder's experience have a pimp and are trafficked. Very few are working as free agents.
A few years ago, the District Attorney's office created a task force to deal with the increasing prostitute problem and the violence that went with it. Now when girls are arrested for prostitution, the DA's office tries to get them to testify against the guys running the operation.
Sunlight is a key ingredient. Thus the John photos.
"People are not going to be able to do this in the dark anymore," Schroeder says. "Everybody ought to know what they're doing so that their wives and loved ones can see."
Legally, it's fair game. The men are convicted, their names and photos are public record.
Think of it as a modern day stocks, the medieval punishment where offenders were displayed in public for all to see. Today, the internet serves as the proverbial public square.
These are real human being with real lives which can be ruined.
Schroeder considers the program a success. Since its launch in late 2013, she says there have been about 130 felony convictions of traffickers.
Some post the names and photos upon arrest, while others, like Orange County, wait until the men are convicted or take a plea deal.
Back in 2013, in New York, Nassau County arrested over 100 men in a prostitution sting, called "Operation Flush the Johns," posting their names and photos on a website. Most of the men entered into a plea deal. One of the men, Louis DiMaria, said the arrest ruined his life, and brought a suit against the city that is still ongoing, according to his former attorney. His criminal case was dismissed months after his arrest, his attorney in the civil suit did not reply to Broadly's request for comment.
While police departments are within their rights to post the photos, privacy advocates caution the practice as a matter of public policy.
"People in our system are still innocent until proven guilty in a court of law," says privacy advocate Lee Rowland.
"By definition, people who are simply arrested or who have a run-in with law enforcement are legally innocent, and for police departments to take upon themselves the decision to publicize information about people who have not been convicted, they are appointing themselves judge, jury and executioner in the court of public opinion and I think we should be troubled by that," Rowland said.
In Orange County, the photos of the men are not posted until they are convicted. But even so, Rowland calls shaming, "the worst way to help someone reintegrate into society and become a productive citizen" after being convicted of a crime.
As for whether the shaming could deter others from going to prostitutes, Rowland says, "The word 'deterrent' is frequently invoked as an excuse to justify all kinds of over-broad criminal penalties and policies. And yet there is very little evidence about what kind of government behavior actually does deter crime.
Prosecutor Susan Kang Schroeder points out that the Orange County shaming program is a small part of a much larger initiative, so it's difficult to isolate and determine if that one element is having an effect. But the overall approach is.
Some traffickers have social media pages, Schroeder says, and they complain to each other, posting, "Don't go to Orange County, they have a task force," she says.
"We had defendants tell one of our prosecutors that Orange County is 'janky,'" Schroeder says, "which I think is a bad word, but we took it as a compliment."
Many advocates for decriminalization argue that making prostitution illegal puts the women in more danger, and that shaming the men who buy sex, can push the industry further underground.
"When prostitutes' activities are criminalized they cannot report violence committed against them without incriminating themselves" says Gillian Abel, associate professor of public health at the University of Otago, in Christchurch, New Zealand. "The industry then becomes very dangerous because the thugs that get involved know they can get away with it."
In New Zealand, where prostitution is decriminalized, you have to be over 18 to work as a sex worker. Where girls under 18 are concerned, "outreach workers on the street work with young people they find to get them into emergency housing and try and work with them to find alternatives," Abel says.
But back in Orange County Schroeder says decriminalization—even for women over 18—would backfire because then the DA wouldn't be able to go after the traffickers. She says that many men who traffic women over 18 also have underage girls they force to work for them.
The early success of Schroeder's task force is contingent on getting the girls to testify against their pimps. Many of the women and young girls believe they are in a romantic relationship with their pimps. And because many young prostitutes are runaways from the foster care system, they fear being sent to a group home if taken away from their pimps.
For these reasons, getting women to testify against their pimps has proven itself to be no simple task. In a recent trial for a Long Beach pimp, Eric Avery, who was trafficking underage girls, one of his teenage prostitutions was called to testify. The Los Angeles Times captured this chilly exchange between a former prostitute and the district attorney:
When a prosecutor asked her to point to Avery, she said she didn't want to.
"Do you want to be here today?" the prosecutor asked.
"Nope," the girl said.
"Why not?" the prosecutor responded.
The girl shot back: "Because I don't."
Avery ended up getting convicted and sentenced to 47 years in prison. This sort of outcome is the best possible for scenario for Schroeder and her colleagues.
As for the Johns, Schroeder says they deserve it.
Some of the girls are as young as 13, Schoreder argues some show up with black eyes, some have been "branded" by the men who traffic them: their names are tattooed on the girls' faces. Schroeder says authorities are often able to send the girls back to their parents, or, if they don't have parents, find resources for them, alternative homes, and get them back into school.
"When they're purchasing somebody, this is somebody's daughter, this is a runaway, this is someone's kid going through some of the worst situations of their lives, exploited and abused," says Schroeder. "Maybe if wouldn't change your mind, but at the very least, people ought to know—their neighbors, their wives, their friends. I'm glad we're shaming them. They ought to be ashamed."