Early on an otherwise slow Saturday morning, 16 men drifted into the lobby of a police station in South Los Angeles.
They had no crimes to report or friends to bail out of jail. A motley crew bound only by their search for sex, the strangers plastered themselves sheepishly against the back wall, their eyes cast down at the floor like so many awkward teenagers at a school dance. A cop working the front desk took in the glum faces and smirked slightly.
A few minutes after 8:30, the men were led down a hallway and into a room. Spanish speakers were told to take seats next to two translators. "We've developed this program to help you," Bill Margolis, a retired LAPD detective, told the group. "If you listen to what these people say to you today -- if you just stay awake and pay attention -- I guarantee you'll be a better person at the end of it."
"And you don't get a second chance," added Art Ruditsky, the bad cop to Margolis' good one. "Get arrested again and we'll see you in court."
This is john school, a new effort by law enforcement officials to stem prostitution in Los Angeles. Built on the belief that a heavy dose of in-your-face shame and scare tactics can do more to dissuade men from looking to the streets for gratification than traditional punishment, the class -- think traffic school with higher stakes -- offers first-time offenders leniency in exchange for a promise that they will change their ways. It is the latest example of how prosecutors and police around the country are rethinking their strategies in the age-old battle against prostitution.
"I've arrested hundreds of street walkers and busted countless tricks," said Margolis, who spent nearly three decades working in the Los Angeles Police Department's vice squad. "All those years, we'd send them to court, they'd pay a fine, spend maybe a day or two in jail and then be on their way.
"We're never going to arrest our way out of this problem and we're never going to stop it altogether. But we can try to educate johns about the dangers to themselves and about the violence the women face. Hopefully we can reduce the demand."
Launched recently by the Los Angeles city attorney's office, the Prostitution Diversion Program currently targets only those johns nabbed by the LAPD along a cheerless stretch of Figueroa Boulevard pockmarked by liquor stores and cheap motels -- one of the city's epicenters for street-walking prostitutes. There are tentative plans to expand the class citywide if the pilot program proves successful, said Sonja Dawson, the no-nonsense city prosecutor who helped start the program.
Last month's class of johns was a bland bunch. Most appeared to be in their 20s or 30s, with a few others approaching middle age. They wore jeans and inexpensive watches. A few wore wedding bands. A young, heavy-set man with sad eyes and a meek voice slumped in a folding chair, seemingly plucked from an office cubicle. Behind him, two others in baseball caps sat silently with their arms crossed and lips pursed. Sitting alone in the front row, another earnestly took notes in a leather-bound binder.
The group was predominantly Latino -- a result of the program's catch-area, Dawson emphasized. No one stood out. Adding to the sense of anonymity was the program's policy of not addressing the men by their names.
From the first class on, Dawson has been surprised by the mundanity of the men. She had expected harder, more distasteful types. "These are middle-of-the-road guys," Dawson said. "They get up to go to work in the morning and then many go home to families. You can feel the shame in the room."
Not everyone is eligible for john school. A man cannot have prior arrests for prostitution, drugs or violent crimes on his rap sheet and must be willing to submit to an HIV blood test. Each john shells out $600 to cover the cost of the class.
In exchange, the men get a free pass -- of sorts. Dawson keeps the misdemeanor solicitation charges hanging over the men's heads for a year. If a john doesn't get arrested again trying to pick up a hooker, his file is closed. He avoids the typical sentence of 15 days in County Jail and a conviction on his record, not to mention the thousands of dollars in legal fees associated with a day in court.
It's not jail, to be sure, but john school is no joke. For eight hours, the men are yelled at, pleaded with and lectured. One weary-looking john, who says he has come straight from a night shift at work, receives a firm shake from Margolis every time he nods off and eventually is told to stand up to stay awake. Each presentation is aimed at either scaring them straight with all the terrible things that can be inflicted upon a john or opening their eyes to the ugly realities of the sex-for-money industry. It's not meant as a feel-good therapy session or an opportunity to explain away bad decisions, so there is no give-and-take in the class. The johns are not allowed to ask questions or speak. They sit and listen.