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Cops Target Johns With Billboards, Steep Fines

Chicago Tribune via Yellowbrix

August 30, 2010

CHICAGO – In Chicago and across Cook County, police are trumpeting new approaches to crack down on the prostitution, drugs and violence that plagues some of the area’s most troubled neighborhoods.

Sheriff’s deputies installed billboards targeting men who solicit sex along a stretch of Mannheim Road in suburban Cook County, home to low-budget hotels near O’Hare International Airport that are notorious for prostitution.

The “Dear John” billboards remind those who pay for sex that they face steep fines under the public morals ordinance adopted by the county a year ago.

“Dear John, if you’re here to solicit sex, it could cost you $2,150. We’re teaming up to bust you,” reads one billboard in the 2300 block of Mannheim Road. More than 100 men have received citations and paid thousands of dollars in fines over the last year, money that’s pooled to support programs for abused women, officials said.

Soliciting a prostitute is a misdemeanor offense under Illinois law, enabling those arrested to have the charge expunged from their records if they enroll in a county-run diversion program. That wasn’t much of a deterrent for many offenders, who seemed to show up in the system over and over again, sheriff’s spokesman Steve Patterson said.

Patterson said police still have the option of arresting and charging those who solicit sex, but that these heavy fines appear to have worked better. He said the goal of the ordinance is not to decriminalize solicitation, but to help pay for women to leave the cycle of violence and drug use that often leads to prostitution.

“For anybody who thinks they’re just going to go out for a night and access a prostitute and that’s going to be their little secret … it’s not going to be a secret, we’re going to arrest you. And it’s going to cost you thousands and thousands of dollars,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said at a news conference announcing the billboard campaign.

In Chicago, police on Sunday announced the completion of a weeklong sweep of criminal activity on the city’s South and West sides that netted 48 arrests, more than a dozen weapons and a lot of drugs.

Among the arrests, said police Supt. Jody Weis, was a 27-year-old gang member found with 10 grams of cocaine, 5 grams of crack cocaine and a loaded AK-47 assault rifle. At the time of the arrest, Eric Granger, of the 4300 block of South King Drive, was on parole for aggravated battery with a baseball bat, police said.

Weis credited the success to a coordinated effort by the department’s organized crime division and other units working in communities “plagued by drug and gang activity.”

A search warrant in the 5100 block of West Grand Avenue led to the discovery of handguns, 300 grams of cocaine and about 6 pounds of crystal methamphetamine, Weis said. Officials estimated the street value of the meth seizure at nearly $900,000, the largest such bust in Chicago this year.

Nick Roti, chief of the department’s organized crime division, said meth busts are becoming more common in Chicago, a major distribution hub for illegal drugs manufactured and trafficked in from Mexico.

“We seem to be seizing more meth in Chicago in bigger quantities,” Roti said. “We’re not seeing a big increase of meth use on the street. … Chicago is known as a transfer point in the Midwest.”

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