Illustration by Paul Windle

AIMING THEIR public policy spotlight on prostitution, Portland officials have recently portrayed prostitutes as victims in a deceptive and violent network of pimps and johns. But as a case dismissed in Multnomah County court this week shows, on a law enforcement level, the line between victim and criminal is not so cleanly drawn.

The first time Regina Walters (not her real name) was picked up by Portland police, she was listed as a victim. On that night, July 30, 2009, she got into a car on 82nd Avenue and offered "a blowjob, handjob, and sex" to an undercover officer for $80. The sex crimes unit on the scene cuffed and questioned her, but instead of prosecuting her on prostitution charges, the district attorney (DA) used her story to build a case against her pimp, Eddy Lewis.

Based on court records, it seems Lewis convinced Walters not to work with the DA or testify against him in court: As he faced trial for promoting prostitution, the DA also hit him with six counts of "tampering with a witness." Lewis was convicted anyway, and sentenced to 30 months in Umatilla's Two Rivers Correctional Institution.

Then, eight months after she offered sex to an undercover cop, police again arrested Walters as she walked along 82nd Avenue, "re-citing" her for the two counts of prostitution that occurred in July 2009. Walters, once a victim, was now being charged as a criminal for the same incident.

The debate framing prostitues as victims has gained political steam in recent weeks. In a harsh open letter penned to the Oregonian last week, Mayor Sam Adams' office criticized the paper for reporting that Portland's reputation as a sex-trafficking hub is a "myth" based on anecdotal evidence, not hard numbers.

"We're trying to stop johns and pimps," Adams wrote in his rebuttal to the January 11 article by reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. "Help victims, not pimps."

The perception of Portland as a hotbed of sex trafficking is driven by anecdotal reports from police officers who say they see about two cases a week of child sex trafficking in the city. Victims' advocacy groups, the police, and the mayor's office point out that hard data—like arrests, prosecutions, and convictions—are hard to come by because many prostitutes fear for their lives if they work with authorities.

Asked about the reliability of anecdotal evidence on these issues, police spokeswoman Kelli Sheffer said, "There's no way to get hard numbers on cases because cases are hard to make. It's not about statistics. It's about knowing that we have a problem here and addressing it."

In July 2009, the police officers who picked up Walters—who was 18 at the time—talked with her in-depth about her life with Lewis. The officers found Lewis, then 21, walking down 82nd Avenue with a 16-year-old runaway who in turn told officers she had started turning tricks to pay rent at age 13.

Walters' conversation with police paints a portrait of a troubled girl exactly like the ones Mayor Adams' office has called to support. She told police she had been turning tricks for just a couple of weeks and had to give Lewis half the money.

"I asked her if it was for important things like food or shelter or if she was just looking to buy an iPod," reads Officer Heath Kula's report from the scene. "She smiled and told me she was living with her grandmother but that she is on government assistance and can't afford to take care of her anymore."

Asked why she stayed with Lewis even after she knew he was a pimp, Walters replied, "because I love him." He wouldn't physically hurt her if she didn't turn tricks, Walters told the officers, but he was emotionally manipulative and would make her "feel like I'm a bad person" if she said that she didn't want to work the streets.

The report reads, "I asked [Walters] how she thought Lewis was going to react to this incident, and she said he would just do this to another girl in a couple days. Walters said she felt, 'young and stupid.'"

Scott Stinson, her public defender, says the delay between the incident and charges makes it seem that the DA was vindictively prosecuting her after she failed to help in the trial against her pimp.

"My view is that because she didn't cooperate with them the way they wanted her to, they charged her with a crime they didn't want to charge her with," says Stinson. "It looks like they wanted her to cooperate, and she didn't cooperate as much as they wanted her to, so they used the charge as leverage."

The DA's office could not comment on the specifics of the case, but after repeated calls by the Mercury to inquire about the charges, the DA dropped the case on Monday, January 31—24 hours before it was set to go to trial.

One of the hurdles to treating prostitutes like victims in the legal system is that, unlike drug crimes, there is no diversion program for people convicted of prostitution. In Portland, people who are convicted of crimes like felony possession of a controlled substance have the option of going through a rigorous treatment program in exchange for having their record wiped clean. There is a small treatment program run for prostitutes through nonprofit Lifeworks NW, but it requires a conviction to even get treatment, and at the end of the program women are still left with the crime on their record. That can make it hard for women who are trying to get out of the hard life to secure a job or housing.

If Walters had been convicted of prostitution this week, and gained a criminal record, her future would quickly become even more difficult.