San Diego, CA

Tactics Used

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

San Diego has well-known and robust problems of prostitution and sex trafficking.  A large military presence has helped to boost the demand for commercial sex in the city, and 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 is home to 158 gangs that continue to play a significant role in crime across the county.  The report estimates that there are approximately 7,500 documented gang members in San Diego County, many of which are linked to crimes such as drug distribution, robbery, human trafficking and prostitution.  Gangs are increasingly working together to maximize profits, and the report triangulates well with others that find that gangs are systematically “diversifying their portfolios” with prostitution and sex trafficking – e.g., the MS13 gang and their trafficking in the Virginia region.  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 been conducting 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 and has had a “john school” education program for men arrested for soliciting prostitution since 2002.  The city has also employed SOAP orders, public education efforts, and neighborhood groups have been very active in efforts to curb demand.

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.  The sessions are held every two months (occasionally, one of the six planned classes in a year will be skipped if reverse stings have 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 are charged with the similar charge of 653.22, loitering with intent to engage in prostitution) 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.  The charge is then reduced to a lesser offense.  Offenders must 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 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 National Assessment is provided HERE.

Since our site visit to San Diego in 2009, we have received an update about the PIP john school program.  In late 2012, we confirmed that the PIP program “is very much up-and-running.”  They continue to have sessions every other month, and attendance is holding steady at around 15-20 offenders per session. They have added an additional john/sex addict speakers to the group (they used to have only one, and now they have two or three present as a group or panel), and they hold an informal Sex Addicts Anonymous “meeting” during the class break time where they can speak to the participants one-on-one (they extended the break to accommodate these discussions). Lastly, they had begun efforts to make the Court’s mandatory HIV testing accessible at the PIP 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 have 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 intense 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 offenders in understanding their decision making process and how to 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.  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


Key Partners

  • San Diego City Attorney’s Office
  • San Diego Police Department
  • Strategic Justice Partners

Key Sources


State California
Type City
Population 1266731
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