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John stings: How might the 29 people arrested this week be punished?

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John stings, or undercover operations where a cop -- usually a female cop -- poses as a prostitute to catch men willing to pay for sex, are more rare than stings in which the roles are reversed. This week, the Denver police announced the arrests of 29 people as the result of two john stings. A recent study on prostitution enforcement in Denver sheds light on city cops' attitudes toward johns -- and how offenders are usually punished.

The study, called "Who Pays?", was conducted by the Denver-based Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking. It analyzed 2,072 arrests and 856 court cases in Denver, and found that women are arrested for prostitution-related crimes more often than men and are punished more harshly. Researchers think the reason may be tied to perceptions of prostitutes as drug-addicted criminals and johns as regular guys.

Take these quotes from interviews with Denver police officers:

"The only characteristic, when it comes to the buyers, it's 99 percent men."

"Probably 60 percent of them, they are married and do not want us to tell their wives."

"(He pleaded), 'Please don't tell my family. Is this gonna be on TV?' He is quick to say, 'I have never done this before. I made a mistake. I am lonely.'"

"Males are like, 'I am going to find something tonight right now.... I am gonna hit McDonald's, get a blowjob and go back to work.'"

In Colorado, prostitutes and johns are largely charged with the same crimes; one of the most common is "soliciting for prostitution." The Denver police report that the 29 people arrested this past week in john stings were caught for soliciting and/or agreeing to an act of prostitution. Six prostitutes were also arrested, the police say.

The police did not release the gender of the people arrested. But the study notes that john stings, or "reverse stings," most often net males. Of the 2,072 adult arrests analyzed as part of the study, males made up 39 percent, while females made up 61 percent.

The disparity could be because john stings may be harder to conduct due to the fact that there are fewer female officers. One officer told researchers, "We are just so short staffed, and it's hard to cut these girls loose. So you will have a pool of twelve women that can work as decoys, but it will dwindle down. Usually, you get one or two."

Click through to read about how johns are punished. So how are johns punished? For one, the police can seize their vehicles under the city's Nuisance and Abatement Ordinance. In 2009 and 2010, the study shows that 257 cars were seized. Owners paid an average of $1,100 to $1,700 to get them back. Twenty-three vehicles were seized in connection with the recent arrests, the police say.

Denver also publishes the names and photos of people convicted of prostitution-related crimes on a website called Johns TV "as a way to create undesirable attention that may help deter individuals from engaging in illegal activities of this kind in the community."

If found guilty, johns are punished by the court. However, the study shows that men charged with prostitution-related crimes are punished less harshly than women. For instance, 36 percent of men in county court cases were sentenced to jail, compared to 70 percent of women. Denver used to have a diversion program -- or "johns school" -- for first-time offenders. Of the 535 people to go through the program between 1997 and 2011, only twelve were women. It was shut down last year for lack of funds. But police officers interviewed for the study expressed frustration that punishing johns does little to curb prostitution. One officer said, "We take away their cars, they get divorces; they are still out there.... They get their picture on the TV. I mean, we're trying to humiliate them and they're still there."

Others questioned whether going after johns was the best use of their resources. "I want to get the pimps," one officer said. "Because the pimps are using drugs, they are beating (prostitutes), they are coercing them." Officers also said they'd rather focus on identifying underage girls who are coerced into prostitution than on catching johns.

One city official interviewed said, "Sending a john to jail -- maybe it's not the best use of resources for the jail. We should be sending more violent offenders to jail."

What will happen to the 35 people arrested this week? We'll keep you posted.

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Lauren Redfern, ex-coach: Sex with student charge dropped because he was almost 18?"

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