By Jared Jacang Maher, FACE THE STATE
Long before authorities began applying legal pressure to Craigslist and other online classified outlets for their “Adult Services” categories, the City and County of Denver popularized a unique method for stamping down on the world’s oldest profession: shame.
Johns TV was a sensation when it debuted on Denver’s city-owned Channel 8, a public-access cable TV offering, in 2002. A response by Denver Police and then-Mayor Wellington Webb launched to growing complaints from Capitol Hill residents about the sex trade along Colfax Ave, the show sought to publicly embarrass men who had been convicted of soliciting prostitutes. Basically a video slideshow of mugshots, Johns TV earned national attention from the likes of ABC News and the LA Times. Detroit and other cities began producing similar programs in hopes of doing away with their own prostitution problems.
Though reliably popular and credited in some reports as reducing solicitation 40 percent, the show was dropped from the Channel 8 schedule in 2008. The reason, according to DPD spokesman Sonny Jackson, was budget cuts. “We still have plenty of [solicitation] convictions. But over at Channel 8 the decision was made to stop doing the show because of different funding priorities,” he says.
Channel 8 Station Manager Alan DeLollis acknowledges that cost-cutting mandates have hit his production budget hard in recent years. But he asserts that his choice to darken Johns TV was motivated more by the lack of eligible Johns coming out of Denver County Court because of a change in legal procedure. “There’s a process by which people could pay their fines very quickly and the Johns TV was not part of their resolution. So more and more people were not being sent completely through the system,” DeLollis says. “You need at least five people to pull a program out of it and there were many months where we didn’t have enough for a show. We had a hard time presenting it in a consistent way, and people who would be expecting to see it one month wouldn’t see it the next. It just became something with diminishing returns, I think.”
It’s true the number of individuals featured on Johns TV, which averaged 115 a year from 2002 to 2007, fell by more than half to just 55 mugshots in 2008. But this wasn’t because of any kind of adjustment in how the county court is dealing with solicitation charges, says Assistant City Attorney Vince DiCroce, who heads the Prosecution and Code Enforcement Section. “No it wasn’t a logistical issue, I think it was a budget cut to Channel 8.” In Denver, prostitution-related crimes are a misdemeanor that can carry jail time and a $500 fine for a first offense.
Whatever the reason Johns TV disappeared from the airwaves, it still lives on in the form of an orphaned web page that gets updated monthly by city employees despite the fact that none of the city’s other websites link to it any longer. A member of the City Attorney’s Office still verifies and sends names of solicitation convicts to the police department, where another functionary matches the mugshot. From there no one is really sure how the Johns end up online. DPD’s Jackson suggested it could be the court’s responsibility, but County Court Administrator Matthew McConville didn’t call back.
Shame or no shame, the Johns no longer seem to find their fun on Capitol Hill, where at one time residents often found used condoms littering their yards. “It’s not a concern for us anymore,” says Roger Armstrong, head of Capitol Hill United Neighbors. He says much of the improvement has to do with the redevelopment of Colfax. “It has helped by not having block after block empty where prostitution could flourish.” However, he does acknowledge that “when you clean up an area you don’t always get rid of a specific problem, you just move it into a different area.”
Like Craigslist, perhaps? Maybe the online strategy isn’t such a bad idea for Johns TV.