By Anand Vasu
On April 21, the Manhattan District Attorney announced initiatives that would change the way cases with regards to prostitution and unlicensed massage would be prosecuted in the jurisdiction.
District Attorney Cyrus R Vance Jr., who heads one of the most high profile law enforcement offices in the United States, asked the courts to dismiss 914 open cases involving prostitution and unlicensed massage, and 5,080 cases of loitering for the purposes of prostitution.
Some of these cases dates back to the 1970s and 1980s.
According to a press release from the Manhattan DA’s office, the moves are aimed at “preventing unnecessary future contacts with the criminal justice system, eliminating the collateral consequences associated with having a prostitution case or conviction, and empowering New Yorkers to interact with law enforcement without fear of arrest or deportation.”
To put it more simply, Manhattan law enforcement is now recognizing the fact that many of those trafficked into the sex trade, either as sex workers or workers in unlicensed massage parlors, were traditional targets of prosecution.
However, in many cases, these individuals did not choose their profession, or have a choice in breaking existing law.
Even with that being the case, individuals arrested and prosecuted under these laws suffered after, as it became difficult for them to find employment in other spheres with a criminal record to their name.
In announcing the latest initiatives, the Manhattan DA’s office also clarified that there would be no change in how law enforcement viewed those who solicited paid sex, or those who trafficked people for sex, or those who profited from prostitution or allied activities.
“Over the last decade we’ve learned from those with lived experience, and from our own experience on the ground: criminally prosecuting prostitution does not make us safer, and too often, achieves the opposite result by further marginalizing vulnerable New Yorkers,” said District Attorney Vance. “For years, rather than seeking criminal convictions, my office has reformed its practice to offer services to individuals arrested for prostitution. Now, we will decline to prosecute these arrests outright, providing services and supports solely on a voluntary basis. By vacating warrants, dismissing cases, and erasing convictions for these charges, we are completing a paradigm shift in our approach.”
The action also gives closure to the “loitering for the purposes of prostitution law” also known as “walking while trans.” This law, which came into place in 1976 at a time when New York was attempting to clean up its image as a city of crime and sin, was repealed in February 2021.
“With today’s dismissals, we also close the book on Loitering for the Purpose of Prostitution, known as the ‘Walking While Trans’ for its decades of discriminatory enforcement, unfairly targeting members of the LGBTQ+ community,” said Vance. “I was proud to support the repeal of this bill, and thank Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, and the many, many survivors and advocates who fought to put an end to this practice.”
Vance also thanked Abigail Swenstein of the Legal Aid Society’s Exploitation Intervention Project, for her role.
“We thank the DA’s office, and most notably, the prosecutors in the human trafficking unit, who have listened to and acted on the knowledge gained from speaking to advocates and most importantly, survivors and those with lived experience as sex workers,” Swenstein said. “However, this policy should not supplant the need to pass legislation that would fully decriminalize sex work and provide for criminal record relief for people convicted of prostitution offense.”
Manhattan is not the first region to adopt such an approach. Already, Baltimore and Philadelphia have put in place provisions through which they have declined to prosecute sex workers.
A 2020 study titled The Harmful Consequences Of Sex Work Criminalization On Health And Rights, conducted by the Sex Works and Allies Network in conjunction with Yale Global Health Justice Partnership, noted that “Many people in the sex sector are caught in cycles of surveillance and criminalization for lower-level “quality of life” offenses, including but not limited to prostitution offenses. Street-based sex workers, for instance, are often targeted for arrest under trespassing, loitering, and vagrancy laws. This revolving door of criminal legal system involvement has short- and long-term destabilizing and disempowering effects on sex workers and their communities.”
The study found that the criminalization of sex workers exacerbated ongoing race and gender discrimination and raised barriers to housing, public benefits, and other social supports.
Critically, the study observed: “There is no evidence that criminalizing sex work deters those who may sell or buy sex. Instead, the evidence shows that criminalization, whether full or partial (the latter only targets buyers), makes sex work more dangerous; drives sex workers into more isolated locations; impedes the use of safety and harm reduction strategies; makes it more risky to report violence and abuse from clients, managers, and law enforcement; and increases risk of exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.”
The ACLU also has strong opinions on the subject. In October 2020, an ACLU report recommended the decriminalization of “all consensual sex work, including prostitution, among adults.” The report recommended the elimination of unwanted police presence among the sex work community and called for supporting sex workers and listening to the recommendations of community organizers who lead sex work decriminalization groups and grassroots organizations.