LaSalle County Sting Highlights Link Between Prostitution And Drugs
A recent LaSalle County prostitution sting made statewide news when it led to the arrest of prominent local officials. Then-mayor of Sandwich Rick Olson and a hospital executive were among those arrested for soliciting prostitutes.
But the case also shined a light on the county's growing struggle with drugs and the opioid crisis. The investigation focused on the link between prostitution and the use of illegal drugs in the area.
"There's a big problem with prostitution in our area," said Brian Zebron. He works with the TRIDENT Drug Task Force and was the arresting officer in the investigation.
"One of the things we learned from talking to a lot of addicted females is that they were into prostitution either, No. 1: to support their habit to get more drugs to put into their body, or No. 2: it was because they were kind of forced into it by their drug dealer," Zebron said.
In other words, some of these women are not in the sex trade by choice, but to fuel an addiction.
“Typically we're dealing with crack cocaine or heroin when we're looking at those addictions. And it's these girls that just can't get away from it," said Zebron.
Aside from other illegal drugs, the opioid crisis has been deadly in LaSalle County. Last year, the county had the fifth-worst rate of opioid overdoses out of all 102 counties in Illinois.
Dan Lombardi is an assistant State's Attorney. He said while he expects the opioid problems to persist, he's also worried about the growth of other drugs like methamphetamine in the Illinois Valley.
“Methamphetamines is going to go up, and we're seeing that a lot more frequently now too. That's starting to skyrocket," said Lombardi. "So it's going to be hitting around the same area as opioids. So it's starting to culminate over multiple different types of drugs, but the drug issues and epidemic is very, very terrible right now."
State’s Attorney Karen Donnelly says the county could use more help to begin solving the epidemic.
"Seeing how rural we are, I don't think we have enough treatment providers and systems in place," Donnelly said. "With the way the state of Illinois, there's just no programs and there's no money to build new facilities for these people," she said.
Despite the deficit, they're confident in one new program: Drug Court.
"Drug Court is an intensive treatment program where people have to come in and report and tell the judge what they're doing," she said. "We're going to give them the tools to help them get better as far as educational training, vocational training, making sure they stay on their meds if there's some prescription they have to stay on for the drugs."
The program is trying to keep offenders out of jail.County leaders are still waiting on state certification, but they're hoping to launch by the fall.
Currently, the state offers other treatment programs like TASC probation. The in- and outpatient care and mandatory random drug tests can make it difficult for some with substance use disorders. Lombardi said he's seen cases where people declined TASC probation and went to jail instead.
They hope that these measures, along with Drug Court, will help decrease the recidivism they see among drug offenders.
State's Attorney Donnelly also believes there needs to be more education about the nature of addiction. Lombardi agrees:
"It's difficult, but maybe have a bit more compassion for these people. They are criminals, they are breaking the law -- that's understood -- and they're going to be held accountable for their actions. But, at the same time, being overly critical of them can be detrimental to the recovery process."
The lack of education about addiction, and how prostitution is tied to it, can warp the public narrative around the topic.
"They're calling it victimless crimes and it's not," said Donnelly.
She says the victims are the women putting themselves out there. And even the "johns," those who solicit the services, are putting themselves at risk.
"I think that's what irritates me a little bit is the people saying, 'This is a victimless crime, let it go. It's not a big deal,'" said Donnelly. "They don't understand what's really behind the seedy business."
In terms of education, the State's Attorney's office has been holding open community forums on these issues. They said the response has been good, but they think they can do better.
One of the key components has been reminding people at these forums that a lot of these offenders are members of the community, people who grew up here and want to get better.