In the four years since a Cook County ordinance took effect raising the fine on soliciting a prostitute, sheriff's officers haven't arrested a single repeat offender, Sheriff Tom Dart recently told NBC Chicago.
Dart's office has collected nearly $208,000 in fines since his officers began citing Johns instead of charging them with the misdemeanor allowed by Illinois state law. Sixty percent of that money has gone to fund a service to help prostitutes get off the street. The remainder has gone to the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center.
Sex trafficking is a big problem in Cook County, authorities said. Experts say demand is driving the activity.
So who's buying? A 2008 report by CAASE -- the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation -- indicates most of the Johns are in relationships and have seemingly bright futures. In fact, the report said that 62 percent of those charged have a potential regular sex partner. Seventy-nine percent of them have attended college, have graduated, or have graduate degrees.
"I'm not soliciting anyone," said one 21-year-old college student arrested on a recent rainy Thursday morning.
The young man indicated he approached the undercover officer "as a joke."
"I would just hope they get the help they need," he said. "I can see where it would hurt their self-esteem."
But prostitution goes beyond a shattered self-esteem. Most of the women have experienced abuse.
"Usually [it's] sexual abuse that started within the home decades ago," said Dart. "It's drug abuse as well. All those things sort of patched together has lead them to where this is the way they make ends meet."
It's a dangerous way to live. One John recently taken into custody is a 36-year-old man who turned out to be a convicted murderer who pleaded guilty in 2004 to the 1994 murder of a prostitute named LaCreesha Avery.
"I'm being watched because I'm undercover," an officer, "Sue," told NBC Chicago. "If I was actually just a working girl on my own, I wouldn't have any protection. No one is going to come after me."
The Illinois State Senate has passed legislation, SB3558, which would impose fines against Johns, pimps, and traffickers. The money would create a fund at the Illinois Department of Human Services which would provide services to victims of trafficking and exploitation. It is currently waiting to be called for a vote in the House and is expected to pass, according to Lynne Johnson, the Policy and Advocacy Director at CAASE.