Grand Rapids, MI

Tactics Used

Reverse stings
Auto seizure
Community service
Public education
Neighborhood action
SOAP orders
John school
Web stings
License suspension

Grand Rapids, Michigan has well-documented problems with prostitution and sex trafficking, spanning decades.  The extreme end of the scale includes at least one serial killer who targeted Grand Rapids women engaged in prostitution, and other cases of murdered victims of commercial sex,  murdered pimps and attacks on johns.

The city is one of the pioneers in U.S. efforts to combat demand for commercial sex. The Grand Rapids Police Department was among the first in the nation to conduct reverse sting operations, using female police officers as decoys to arrest male sex buyers as early as 1967, if not before. Grand Rapids established the country’s first “john school” program in 1981, and in 1991 established the only systematic “after care” option for john school graduates. Local officials were also among the first in the nation to require that individuals convicted of solicitation complete community service as part of their sentencing.

Although the identities of arrested sex buyers were not routinely released following early sting operations, local media outlets carried the names, ages and arrest photos of three johns picked up during a street-level reversal in July 2015.

The John Group

Grand Rapids’ John Group was established long before the term “john school” was coined to describe efforts to prevent or deter arrested sex buyers from reoffending through education or counseling programming. The phrase “john school”, coined by a reporter in the late 1990s writing about San Francisco’s First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP), has since become a generic term.  The John Group in Grand Rapids was established 14 years before the FOPP was launched.

Unlike many subsequent john school programs, the John Group was structured as a condition of a sentence, and not a diversion program. Participation is not voluntary, and completion of the program does not result in charges being dismissed.  Offenders convicted of soliciting can be sentenced to serve a term of probation involving participation in the John Group as well as other sanctions and rehabilitation and/or restitution efforts, such as community service.  John Group participants must pay a fee of $100 to cover court costs and $50 for a therapist to run the sessions.

The program is composed of four group counseling sessions, plus one individual session at the end of the series.  The time spent in the John Group typically run between six and seven hours across all five sessions.  Elements of the curriculum include:

  • Health risks
  • Health screening/tests
  • Legal consequences of soliciting
  • Impact on survivors
  • Impact on communities
  • Healthy relationships
  • Sexual addiction

The Department of Public Health or Planned Parenthood provide the health education material.  Partners from organizations may be available to discuss with the group issues of sexual addiction and healthy relationships.  Survivors of commercial sex discuss the impact that prostitution has had on them, as well as the dangers men face when buying sex.  Other content is delivered by the probation officer managing the program.

Between 1981 and 2008, over 700 men participated in the program.

An independent organization developed a form of program “after care” for men completing the John Group.  The Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill in 1991 launched a set of group counseling sessions into which the courts may decide to route arrested sex buyers after the John Group; men may also participate voluntarily.  Participants attend three individual sessions, then 16 weekly group counseling sessions.  The topics covered are essentially the same as those in the john group, but others may be covered since the group counseling format is flexible and men may bring up topics on which to work.

Community Service

Judges have discretion in how many hours of community service is required, and what the men are required to do during those hours.  A common activity is sweeping and cleaning the very streets where the men were arrested for trying to buy sex (a requirement similar to one in the Red Zone Program in Indianapolis).

Key Partners

  • Grand Rapids Police Department
  • 61st District Court’s Probation Department
  • Department of Public Health
  • Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill
  • Men’s Resource Center of Western Michigan
  • Human Resource Associates
  • Planned Parenthood
  • Sacred Beginnings
  • Survivors of commercial sex (presenters in john school program)

Key Sources

State Michigan
Type City
Population 193627
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