Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Can Jim Vokal Ride Prostitution to the Mayor's Office?

by Kyle Michaelis
Omaha city councilman Jim Vokal, fresh from a narrow re-election this spring after which he immediately declared his intention to run for Mayor in 2009, has chosen a peculiar cause to define himself - getting tough on prostitution.

Having faced questions of his own sexuality, one might assume Vokal would steer clear of the world's oldest profession for fear of drawing attention to the generally malicious rumors that became an issue in his last campaign. Instead, it seems he's chosen the well-worn road of reactionary excess and over-compensation to PROVE he's no deviant by cracking down on socially unacceptable and illegal sexual conduct.

Last week, the Omaha World-Herald reported:
"(Prostitution) continues to plague our neighborhoods," Councilman Jim Vokal said during a public hearing at the Omaha City Council meeting.

Under Vokal's plan, the mandatory minimum fine would be $300 to $500 for a second offense and a minimum of $500 for third and fourth offenses....

Vokal also plans to ask the City Council to lobby state legislators to make third and subsequent prostitution offenses felonies.

To which, an OWH Editorial responded:
Good governance entails forward thinking in determining the appropriate course and punishment for wrongdoing. Society is ill-served, that is, when government leaders try to address a complex problem with a simplistic, narrowly drawn approach.

Such is the case with a proposal by Omaha City Councilman Jim Vokal to add mandatory fines to the jail time already required for second, third and fourth offenses of prostitution....

The proposal would deal clumsily with a complex problem that cries out for a thoughtful, broadly constructed response....

Prostitutes often are trapped in horrific circumstances. Many sell their bodies to help pay for drug habits, food or a place to stay because of homelessness. Some do it as a result of untreated sexual abuse in their childhood that leads to inappropriate sexualized behavior. Given those circumstances, it is unrealistic to imagine that raising the fines would make much headway in finding a remedy for the problem....

Treating the disease (what leads to prostitution) rather than the symptoms (the act itself) could result in an outcome that favors all involved - prostitutes, their clients and the neighborhoods harmed by the activity. That's good governance.

Attempting to defend his plan, Vokal writes in Tuesday's paper:
Prostitution continues to plague our neighborhoods. When the residents see their elected officials strike out at these criminal activities, they see people who care and are willing to take a stand against crime in their neighborhoods.

Increased police staffing and corresponding stings, as well as outreach and prevention programs, have been part of the solution all along but are not working. Something more needs to be done in conjunction with them, and this would be a start.

This approach would not make the problem go away but hopefully would help reduce it. While some may call this a simplistic, narrowly drawn approach, using effective techniques from other cities to at least try to make a difference is better than sitting on one's hands.

So, is that going to be Vokal's future campaign theme - I may not do the right thing, but at least I'll do something?

Regardless, even the mighty World-Herald's criticism isn't going to hurt Vokal with the many religious and social conservatives so desperate for a moral crusader - no matter the unreasonable and foolish public policy espoused. It's these votes to which Vokal is making an appeal here, locking-up support and squelching any remaining doubts about his own moral/sexual/religious integrity among those who make no distinction between the three.

Will it pay-off? Who knows. But, I'm sure we'll all enjoy the debate - some of us with what can only be considered a perverse delight. be so repressed!


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