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Chicago police borrow a page from Freakonomics

In Freakonomics, we talk about how some of the most powerful incentives are social, not financial. One example we give is posting the pictures of people caught soliciting prostitutes on the web. How appropriate that the following story appeared recently in the Chicago Tribune:

(It was long, so I edited out parts. You can see the whole article here at least for a while.)

Web site puts `johns’ on the spot
City anti-prostitution plan unfair, critics say

By Gary Washburn and Charles Sheehan
Tribune staff reporters
Published June 22, 2005

People seeking prostitutes in Chicago already face arrest and impoundment of their cars if they are caught, but now they risk something else: public embarrassment on a city Web site.

The city has begun posting the names and photographs of alleged “johns” on the Police Department’s Web site for all to see, including spouses, children, employers, friends and neighbors, Mayor Richard Daley announced Tuesday.

“I don’t have to tell anyone how fast information travels on the Internet,” Daley said.

“Its victims are, first of all, the prostitutes themselves,” Daley said. “It is estimated that between 16,000 and 25,000 women are involved in prostitution in Chicago over the course of a year. Most of them were victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence from a very young age.

“Once they become prostitutes, they’re subject to even more violence, abuse and possible death from their pimps and their customers. They spend their lives surrounded by criminals and drugs and [are] vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases.”

The names and partial addresses of 21 people, along with police photographs of 20 of them, were listed at on Tuesday. Police Sgt. Robert Cargie said that there was no specific timetable for removing the photos, but that as the Web site gets more photos, they will be rotated.

Chicago is not the first city that has attempted to use shame as a deterrent to prostitution.

“Operation John Be Gone” in Akron, Ohio, “draws the most hits on our Web site by far”–100,000 in its first year of operation, said Police Lt. Rick Edwards.

“The first thing attorneys for these guys say is, `What can we do about the picture on the Web site?'” Edwards said. “Their clients are willing to do more time and pay bigger fines rather than having their photo [on display].”

Patti Buffington, executive director of Genesis House, a social-services agency that helps prostitutes, said she has qualms about the Internet postings, but not on constitutional grounds.

Public identification of suspects could lead to violence in the homes of some of the men whose names are posted, Buffington said. And she said she fears the impact on children who may come across pictures of their fathers.

The Chicago Police Department’s vice unit, which handles most of such cases, arrested 3,204 prostitutes and 950 customers last year, officials said.

“If we can use a little embarrassment, we are going to do so,” said Police Supt. Philip Cline, who appeared with Daley at a downtown news conference. Postings represent “one more deterrent that should make potential customers think twice,” he said.

Some of the numbers in the article surprise me (who knows if they are really correct). They say there are 16,000-25,000 women engaged in prostitution in Chicago over the course of a year. So let’s say 10,000 prostitutes working on any given night, and turning maybe 3 tricks per night. That is 30,000 instances of paid sex a day, or about 11 million per year. Which works out to about 4 visits to a prostitute per male resident of the Chicagoland area per year. Which seems way too high to me. Maybe I just run with a tame crowd.

On top of that, if the city only makes 3,204 arrests of prostitutes a year, the chance of the prostitute getting arrested per trick is about one in 3400. Either the police aren’t trying very hard to fight prostitution, or they are having a lot harder time finding the prostitutes than the johns are. For johns, of whom less than 1000 are arrested, the chance of arrest per solicitation is about 1 in 10,000. So if it is worth the equivalent of $50,000 to you not to have your picture on that web page, the deterrent effect of posting pictures works out to be the equivalent of a $5 tax per trick.

My favorite part of the article is the quote about how public identification of the suspects could lead to violence in the homes of some of the men who are arrested. I wonder what the women quoted means? Presumably wives beating up their husbands. Which seems like it is kind of the point of the whole program.

If you go to the site where the pictures are posted, the guys who got caught don’t exactly look happy, but they don’t look nearly as upset as you might think. I guess most of them don’t have a wife waiting at home with a frying pan on the ready like I do.