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Reducing Demand for Prostitution in San Francisco With a “John School” Program

Date Published
August 31, 2016

A number of programs across the country aim to reduce prostitution not by targeting prostituted women and men but instead by reducing demand. The First Offender Prostitution Program was one such program. The First Offender Prostitution Program was designed to reduce the demand for commercial sex and human trafficking in San Francisco by educating “johns,” men arrested for soliciting prostitutes, about the negative consequences of prostitution. Persons caught for the first time who agreed to pay the fee and attend a one-day workshop (the “john school”) had the charges against them dropped if they avoided re-arrest for another prostitution offense for a year after they attended the class.

The evaluation addressed three priority issues about the First Offender Prostitution Program: effectiveness, return on investment, and transferability.

Effectiveness. The findings strongly suggest that the program led to less reoffending among men arrested for soliciting prostitutes. Although participants reported that the program did not change the likelihood that they would solicit prostitutes again, recidivism for soliciting prostitution did, in fact, drop in San Francisco after the First Offender Prostitution Program started. The reduction was not the result of displacement of sex purchasing or other significant shifts that would explain the decline in reoffending, a finding that strongly suggests that the First Offender Prostitution Program was responsible for the change.

Return on Investment. The program was cost-effective. Fees collected from those in the program supported all direct costs of conducting the john school classes, as well as subsidizing police vice operations and the costs of screening and processing arrestees. Furthermore, the program generated nearly $1 million for recovery programs for women and girls involved in commercial sex.

Transferability. The evaluation found that, under the right circumstances, the program was transferable. It has been successfully replicated (that is, the programs were extremely similar to the original First Offender Prostitution Program) in 12 other U.S. sites and adapted in a number of other places over the past decade.

One key finding for policy and practice was that the First Offender Prostitution Program is highly portable; that is, it can be replicated or used as a model in new environments and remain stable and successful. The researchers found that more than 80 percent of similar programs implemented after 1981 were still in operation by the end of 2007, when the study concluded. Furthermore, most of the programs were successfully funded entirely or in part by fees from participants in the program.

The researchers note that programs similar to the First Offender Prostitution Program can avoid needing taxpayer support indefinitely if there are enough participants. This requires that local law enforcement remain committed to arresting men for soliciting prostitution and that fees are high enough to fund the program but not so high as to discourage arrestees from participating.

The researchers also note, however, that practitioner access to information about the range of john school models and details about those programs is critical. Because the First Offender Prostitution Program has been described so thoroughly, it often becomes the default model for designing a new program, but local conditions may require modifications. When they have information about other programs and alternative solutions that have been developed, practitioners can make more informed decisions about when and how to deviate from the First Offender Prostitution Program.

The researchers offer six questions that could guide future research:

  • Why is the First Offender Prostitution Program effective?
  • For whom is the First Offender Prostitution Program effective?
  • Is the First Offender Prostitution Program more or less effective than other john school models?
  • Could the First Offender Prostitution Program john school curriculum (and the curricula of other john schools) be better targeted to meet their needs and address the their risk factors?
  • What do we know about john school programs and other demand-reduction approaches implemented nationally?
  • What do we know about john school programs abroad?

Data collection efforts included site visits, police “ride-alongs,” interviews, collection of program documents and administrative data, structured observations of john school classes, pre- and post-class surveys of participants and assembly of criminal history data regarding men arrested for soliciting prostitutes in San Francisco and throughout California.

About this Article

The work discussed in this article was completed under grant number 2005-DD-BX-0037 awarded by NIJ to Abt Associates Inc. The article is based on the grant report Final Report on the Evaluation of the First Offender Prostitution Program by Michael Shively, Sarah Kuck Jalbert, Ryan Kling, William Rhodes, Peter Finn, Chris Flygare, Laura Tierney, Dana Hunt, David Squires, Christina Dyous, and Kristin Wheeler.

Date Published: August 31, 2016