A judge says people still come to the city for drugs and hookers
February 02, 2010
Hartford Community Court Judge Raymond Norko sits listening to classical guitar music in his chambers just down the hall from his courtroom at 80 Washington St. The soft, lyrical tones float from behind his desk, covered in a chaotic pile of papers and court documents.
"Do you know how old the average prostitute in Hartford is?" asks Norko, fixing me with a gaze over his lowered glasses.
I guess 15.
"Forty-four," he answers. "Money and sex have nothing to do with it. It's all about the drugs."
Norko tells me there are "no real pimp systems" in Hartford. "These women just go on the street and flag cars down," he says.
He asks me to guess the average fee for a sex act. It's $20. Hartford Police could pick up 20 johns a day if they wanted to, says Norko — mostly from the surrounding suburbs.
"Idiots who come to Hartford to buy their drugs and prostitutes," he says.
A legal aid attorney for 15 years before he became a judge, Norko created the community court in 1997 after a group of residents from the Barry Square area said things were getting out of control in their neighborhood. Community court deals with "quality of life" issues such as public drunkenness, drug use and prostitution.
The court took 18 months to put together, and involved more than 25 public agencies. Norko modeled it after the first community court in the country in Manhattan, which has been credited with improving the quality of life in that city.
First-time offenders are given a chance to stay out of jail and keep their records clean by performing community service and getting help for their problems. Those with rap sheets can avoid adding yet another charge to their tally. Amazingly, quite a few refuse during the hour or so I spend watching Norko grind through his day's work, preferring instead to go to trial.
In these bad economic times, Norko's caseload has exploded. Norko built the court to handle 6,000 to 8,000 cases a year. Last year, there were 13,000. "The numbers are jumping off the wall," he says.
Compounding the court's difficulties are the hard times nonprofit organizations are experiencing. Norko says the court relies on the services of numerous nonprofits. But one that won't be back this year is the Paul & Lisa program, which has worked for the past nine years in both Hartford and Waterbury, helping prostitutes.
Executive Director Schaleen Silva says $133,000 in funding from the state has been cut, leaving the organization scrambling to survive. Paul & Lisa has graduated 600 women from its "holistic" program in the past nine years, addressing both their physical and mental well-being.
Silva says the recidivism rate among graduates is very low, around 25 percent, which saves the state money it would have spent on prosecuting and jailing the women if they had remained prostitutes. Silva estimates the savings amount to as much as $10 million every three years. But even if she's wrong, she says it doesn't matter.
"It's not just about the money we save the state, it's about the quality of life we've given women who've gone through the program," said Silva. "Ninety-nine percent were abused in some manner in childhood, prostituted since they were very young. Now they're in their 40s and it's the only way of life they know."