Most of the 104 men arrested last year in the "Flush the Johns" anti-prostitution sting will be allowed to plead guilty to a reduced charge that will leave them with no criminal record, Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said Wednesday.
The sudden change in policy, described by Rice's office Wednesday as being part of a "new program," came one year and one day after Rice held a much-publicized news conference to announce the arrests. It marked a major change in tactics for Rice, who had insisted for the past year that all the men plead guilty to the top charge of patronizing a prostitute in the third degree, a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to 1 year in jail.
During that year, four of the men had gone to a nonjury trial and three were acquitted.
The change in policy became evident Wednesday when John Graff, 45, of Tabernacle, New Jersey, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a violation, a class of wrongdoing that falls short of being a crime.
Judge Susan Kluewer accepted Graff's plea in First District Court in Hempstead, sentenced him to 35 hours of community service and required him to attend classes -- called "johns schools" in other jurisdictions -- meant to deter men charged with patronizing a prostitute from repeating their crimes.
Rice's office said later the same plea deal would be extended to all the pending cases, about 75 in number, and that the 24 who have pleaded guilty before Wednesday would be allowed to replead to the lesser count.
Until now, Rice had refused to allow plea bargains to lesser charges. Asked about the change, a Rice spokesman said it was "a new program in an ongoing crime initiative."
Rice also released a statement saying, "This program is another step in an ongoing and multipronged strategy of aggressive enforcement, public awareness and innovative defendant education. We won't be backing down from making cases that we know will save lives."
Brian Griffin, a defense lawyer for several of those charged in the sting, said in a statement: "This was a pre-planned sting operation which only gave thought to getting an arrest and publicizing names. Although a lesser outcome is now being offered, it does not undo the damage to those acquitted or those who will ultimately resolve the matter without a criminal conviction."
Of the 104 arrests, charges were dismissed in one case at the request of prosecutors and another case was dismissed by a judge in the "interest of justice."
A spokesman said later that defendants who accept the plea would be required to pay a $250 fee to cover the cost of the classes, which will be run by the district attorney's office and two nonprofit victims' advocacy groups -- The Safe Center LI and Sanctuary for Families.
Similar "johns" programs have been in operation in other jurisdictions, including the First Offender Prostitution Program in San Francisco that has been running for about 18 years.
Nassau County police arrested 104 men over several days in April and May of last year in a sting police called "reversals" because it reversed the usual procedure in Nassau of arresting the prostitutes rather than johns who patronized them.