First Offender Prostitution Program Punishes Victimless Crime

San Francisco's First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP) has been copied in more than a dozen municipalities nationwide. But Supervisor Jake McGoldrick says we may need to make sure our own house is in order. He's accused the program of potentially mismanaging city funds, and has proposed that the Board of Supervisors' budget analyst examine what may be a government boondoggle: "Scarce details are available on the guidelines that direct offenders to the program," his proposal states. "There is very little public information on the fiscal workings of the program, including accounting for the funds generated by offender fees," and "there is no data to ascertain whether the program is meeting performance standards."

FOPP, McGoldrick says, is in desperate need of an audit. Okay. Will a two-year, Department of Justice–funded independent review work? Because one is about to be released.

Michael Shively, the primary author of the study conducted by Abt Associates, says that while no program is perfect, preliminary results show that FOPP is "very effective, the design makes sense for the outcomes they're trying to produce, and they're doing what they say they're going to do."

FOPP is run by nonprofit Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE) in conjunction with the district attorney's office and the SFPD. It uses fees paid by first-time "johns" who choose to attend a class instead of facing a criminal trial and conviction, so the money involved isn't taxpayer dollars. Last year's budget came to about $168,000, split among the three partners. A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office says they are confident that the money is being handled appropriately, and Shively notes that the federal report determined that FOPP is cost-effective overall.

So where did McGoldrick's accusations come from? Through a spokesman, McGoldrick says he wants an audit to reveal "a whole picture" — a "more holistic social-economic approach to the issue of sex work in San Francisco," instead of just how effectively FOPP prevents repeat offenders. His staff referred me to "volunteer" Rachel West, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Prostitutes Collective. West had scant details on FOPP, but wanted to spend lots of time — lots and lots of time — explaining why prostitution should be legal. That appears to be the central argument against FOPP: It's trying — quite successfully — to reduce prostitution rather than legalize it.

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