"They dress like you wouldn't believe," explains community policing officer Mike DiMaggio: "Super-high-cut shorts and skirts, high heels, very low-cut blouses. They're well kept, compared to the regular street girls we are accustomed to and know as being normal Fort Lauderdale people."
To the cops it's the "Miami look," and over the last eight months they've seen what DiMaggio calls an "influx" -- Miami-Dade County prostitutes traveling north to do business in Broward.
"All of a sudden, you see these people who are dressed a little better than our hookers, and they have Dade County addresses," adds Fort Lauderdale police Sgt. Frank Miller. "We asked them, 'What are you all doing up here?' and they said, 'Well, they raised the bond in Dade County, so it's the lesser of two evils.'" In Miami-Dade the bond for misdemeanor prostitution is $1000, while in Broward it's only $300. So as a simple business decision, Miller says, "you're going to go where it's cheaper."
Angered by this assault of hookers on neighborhoods undergoing revitalization, Fort Lauderdale civic associations, with police encouragement, are rallying support from other Broward cities to build on Miami-Dade's example -- and dramatically increase Broward's bond for prostitution.
Fort Lauderdale activist Bill Rettinger is launching the counterattack. He serves as a citizen-member on the Broward County Public Safety Coordinating Council, an advisory board of law enforcement and criminal justice officials that makes policy recommendations on court-related issues.
"What we are asking for is across-the-board bail increases to $5000 for prostitution arrests throughout the county," Rettinger says. "Make it as hard to get out of jail here as it is in Dade, and maybe they'll go to Boca or somewhere else. We don't care. Just get 'em out of Broward County. We don't need our neighborhoods overrun by this."
When he first raised the issue about two months ago, Rettinger got nowhere with the public safety council, but since then he has received backing from associations in a number of Fort Lauderdale neighborhoods, including Lake Ridge, Victoria Park, Flagler Heights, Middle River Terrace, and Sailboat Bend. From that base he's gathering support from other Broward cities and plans to push again for an increase in the county's prostitution bond at the August 13 meeting of the public safety council.
That effort has a formidable opponent: Broward Chief Judge Dale Ross. "I understand the homeowners associations," he says. "If a prostitute were walking up and down my street, I would be outraged. They have every right to be."
But Ross argues that, under the law, bond can't be used as a deterrent or punishment, but instead must have a "rational basis." In his view, even raising the prostitution bond to $1000 -- much less $5000 -- "will not pass constitutional muster. So the issue is whether I as chief judge should raise a bond I know is unconstitutional." To Ross, Broward's current level "is the highest amount we can do and be safe if somebody would ever sue us."
Beyond Ross' legal argument, Rettinger acknowledges neighborhood groups must overcome the attitude among some judges that prostitution is a minor problem given Broward's continuing jail-overcrowding crisis. Increasing the bond means prostitutes will spend more time in jail, taking up space that could be used to hold those arrested for more serious crimes.
To comply with a federal court order to ease overcrowding, more than 350 inmates awaiting trial are already being released from county jails each month. Adding to the jail crisis, the opening of a new Pompano Beach facility has been delayed by construction problems, and work on a new women's facility was bogged down by political debates over privatization. With all those confinement issues facing the criminal justice system, neighborhood prostitution isn't considered a serious-enough crime problem to look for jail-space alternatives.
To neighborhood leaders, the attitude of some judges reflects a lack of understanding that prostitution spawns more serious crimes, like drug dealing and robbery. Hookers on the street are also a signal to other criminals that a neighborhood is open territory.
"The judges in Broward County seem to consider prostitution to be a victimless crime," charges Susan Lavery, president of the Lake Ridge Civic Association, who first wrote Judge Ross in March to ask him to consider raising the prostitution bond. "The judges seem to feel, 'Oh, these are poor girls who are going to be in jail forever until they make bail.'"
Lavery says she encountered that attitude toward prostitutes a couple of years ago when, at the request of police, she and other neighborhood activists showed up at magistrate's court "to tell the judges that some of these are repeat offenders and we want them slapped a little harder on the wrists. Some of the judges threatened to put us in jail for contempt of court. They're not interested. They want them to pay their little fine and get out."
Because of that attitude, Lavery says, what often happens is that prostitutes are arrested, spend one night in jail, make bail the next morning, and later that day are back on the same streets where they were arrested the day before. By forcing them to post a much higher bail, arrests will have more impact, she argues.
"With the current state of affairs, Broward County makes it all too easy for a hooker or hustler to bail out the following morning, following free meals and lodging donated by the taxpayers. If Dade County can make itself economically unpopular enough to push the prostitutes up here, maybe we can give them the incentive to move up to Palm Beach County."
They already have one. In Palm Beach County, the bond for a prostitution arrest is just $250.