San Diego, CA

Tactics Used

Auto Seizure
Buyer Arrests
Community Service
Employment Loss
Identity Disclosure
IT Based Tactics
John School
License Suspension
Neighborhood Action
Public Education
Reverse Stings
SOAP Orders
Web Stings

San Diego, a city of 1.4 million residents in Southern California, has had well-documented and serious problems associated prostitution and sex trafficking for many decades.  A large military presence has helped to boost the demand for commercial sex in the city, and in addition to the large supply of domestic victims, the proximity to Mexico is a factor in ensuring a large supply of individuals vulnerable to exploitation. A report by SANDAG in 2013 concluded that San Diego County was home to 158 gangs that played a significant role in crime across the county.  The report estimated that there were approximately 7,500 documented gang members in San Diego County, many of which were linked to crimes such as drug distribution, robbery, human trafficking and prostitution.  Gangs at the time were increasingly working together to maximize profits, and the report triangulated well with others that found that gangs were systematically “diversifying their portfolios” with prostitution and sex trafficking locally as well as in other regions, such as the MS13 gang and their trafficking in cities within Virginia.  The city and the rest of San Diego County have also experienced serial killers who focused specifically on prostituted women.

Efforts to combat demand have been a part of San Diego’s efforts to curtail sex trafficking and prostitution.  The city has conducted reverse stings since 1981.  For example, in 2018, twenty-nine prostitution buyers were arrested in the San Diego area during one week as part of a statewide crackdown on sexual exploitation of young women and girls.  The multi-agency effort, dubbed “Operation Reclaim and Rebuild,” took place over a three-day period, focusing on the demand side of human trafficking. The goals of the operation, a collaborative project of human-trafficking task forces in San Diego and Los Angeles counties, were to disrupt the demand for vulnerable victims by targeting their buyers; to identify, arrest and prosecute the victims’ pimps; and to rescue victims from abusive circumstances and provide them with rehabilitative services.  Since they assume that more than 70 percent of sex trafficking happens online, law enforcement personnel working the sweep used the internet to capture perpetrators. Decoy prostitution advertisements were posted on websites, and when the buyers showed up at a hotel expecting to take part in illegal sex services, they were arrested.

San Diego police have also collaborated on regional demand reduction efforts.  For example, in April, 2021 a four day reverse sting throughout San Diego County yielded the arrest of 144 men on allegations of trying to hire undercover officers posing as prostituted persons. The operation targeted people searching for options on social media pages for the region. The sheriff’s department and officers from the Chula Vista, Escondido and San Diego police departments collaborated on “Operation Century Week” in partnership with the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force (which includes the state Department of Justice, FBI and other agencies).  In a statement, the Human Trafficking Task forces said:

“Sex buyers drive the demand for human trafficking, which results in an increase of offenders and victims and contributes to negative consequences victims of human trafficking endure.”

Some sex buyer arrests in the city have been the result of alleged offenses against real victims, rather than through reverse stings using policy decoys.  For example, in May, 2022, a man who harassed women at a San Diego shopping center, crawling under their cars at times so they couldn’t leave, was sentenced to serve one year of probation and attend therapy sessions, and was also ordered to stay away from the shopping area parking lot. He had been charged with false imprisonment and battery. Separately, the city attorney said the man admitted a charge of soliciting prostitution.  A series of incidents happened at a strip mall between 2018 and 2020, where the man approached women outside the stores at least six times.

In addition to arresting sex buyers, San Diego has used a variety of demand reduction tactics, including “John School” education program for men arrested for soliciting prostitution. The city has also employed SOAP Orders, Public Education efforts, and Neighborhood Actioonsn that have focused on trying to curb the local demand for prostitution and sex trafficking.

John School (Prostitution Impact Panel)

The Prostitution Impact Panel (PIP) program was developed in 2000-2001, and held its first classes in 2002.  The program is run by the City Attorney’s Office.  PIP designers observed San Francisco’s john school (the First Offender Prostitution Program) and used it as a model, but altered it substantially to meet local needs and resources. For more than a decade, sessions had been held every two months (occasionally, one of the six planned classes in a year would be skipped if reverse stings had not produced enough potential participants).  Through the end of 2009, 800 people had successfully completed the program, for an average of roughly 100 per year.

Arrested sex buyers are charged with violating California Penal code 647.b (a small number of offenders had been charged with 653.22, loitering with intent to engage in prostitution, but that law was repealed, effective January 1, 2023) offered the option of this program.  Successfully fulfilling its requirement results in a reduced charge (and not a dismissal, as in diversion programs).  Requirements include paying a fee of $200, attending the PIP class (for which they earn a certificate), and completing mandatory HIV/AIDS counseling. Offenders must also pay a fine (which is in addition to the PIP fee).  The charge also allows for a maximum of 90 days in jail (as opposed to 180 days for the original charge), but men who complete the program rarely receive jail time.  The primary penalty of concern to the offenders, according to interviews with those who operate the PIP, is that the conviction stays on their criminal record.

An overview of the San Diego Prostitution Impact Panel (john school) program based on interviews and a class observation for the 2012 National Assessment is provided HERE. Research on the program found that as of 2012, the program sessions were held every second month, and attendance was holding steady at around 15-20 offenders per session. Between the program’s origin in 2002 and 2012, they added additional “john/sex addict” speakers to the group (they used to have only one, and then later had two or three present as a group or panel), and they held an informal Sex Addicts Anonymous “meeting” during the class break time where presenters could speak to the participants one-on-one (the class breaks were extended to accommodate those discussions). In addition, they made the Court’s mandatory HIV testing accessible at the PIP meeting location.

In early March 2016, the San Diego Deputy City Attorney reported to the San Diego Union-Tribune that since 2002, more than 97 percent of the nearly 1,400 participants in the program had never again been arrested for “soliciting a prostitute.”

John School (RESOLVE program for sex buyers)

The Strategic Justice Partners Sex Buyer program,  “RESOLVE” is an 8 hour group counseling program for Sex Offenders created by Dr. Todd Pizitz, a Clinical and Forensic Psychologist specializing in sex offender rehabilitation who works with San Diego County prosecutors and probation.  The RESOLVE Program is designed to help arrested sex buyers learn how to change their behavior and not re-offend, by engaging them in understanding their current decision making processes, and how to make adjustments and better control their behavior.  A key program objective is for participants to learn and clearly understand “How, Why and When” choosing to illegally purchase sex became an acceptable choice in their mind, and then empowering them to make healthier decisions related to their sexual and other needs. The RESOLVE program applies “W.H.O. Principles” (Willingness – Honesty – Openness).  The program is based on the assumption that participants must have a Willingness to talk about their thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to sexual needs, in an Honest manner, and be Open to utilizing the tools learned to avoid relapse. At the completion of the course, it is hoped that participants will have learned:

  • How to let go of shame and guilt and replace it with a sense of power
  • Understand the triggers that lead to their criminal behaviors
  • Understand their own compulsions
  • Learn the tools to manage sexual impulses and needs
  • Ways to improve self-esteem
  • Methods to avoid relapse

We do not have information on the program’s implementation or level of utilization in San Diego.

Key Partners

  • San Diego City Attorney’s Office
  • San Diego Police Department
  • Strategic Justice Partners
  • San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force
  • San Diego County Sheriff’s Office

Key Sources

National Assessment Survey, Interview, Site Visits

John School Materials:

Strategic Justice Partners – RESOLVE Program for Sex Buyers

San Diego John School in the Media:

Reverse Stings:

Sex Buyer Arrest, Identity Disclosure:

Auto Seizure:

  • “Prostitutes’ Clients May Risk Losing Their Cars”, San Diego Union-Tribune, February 18 1992.
  • “Car Seizure Ordinance Proposed to Curb Street Prostitution”, San Diego Union-Tribune, November 11 1993.
  • “Police to Impound Cars in Prostitution Cases”, San Diego Union-Tribune, February 4 1998.
  • “Prostitution Sting Nets 30 Suspects, 23 Vehicles”, San Diego Union-Tribune, May 17 1998.
  • “33 Men Arrested in Prostitution Sting”, San Diego Union-Tribune, June 23 1998.
  • “17 Have Cars Seized in Prostitution Sting”, San Diego Union-Tribune, August 16 1998.


Neighborhood Action:

Public Education:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

State California
Type City
Population 1382000
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