Brooklyn prosecutor enters sex work decriminalization debate
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez suggested he is rethinking his office’s approach to prosecuting prostitution-related loitering charges that sex worker advocates say unfairly target vulnerable populations, an issue emerging in the crowded June primary election for Queens District Attorney.
Arrests on loitering, a misdemeanor charge disproportionately leveraged against trans women and women of color, increased in 2018 for the first time since at least 2012, surging 180 percent, according to data obtained by the immigration-focused news outlet Documented NY. A quarter of the arrests took place in Brooklyn.
Gonzalez’s new Justice 2020 Action Plan, a 50-page document released Monday as a blueprint to decrease incarceration, does not explicitly address the prosecution of sex work, his office confirmed. But, spokesperson Oren Yaniv said, “The DA has expressed willingness to take a fresh look at loitering enforcement and would be open to further discussion about this issue.”
Police should arrest traffickers and people who purchase and promote sex, advocates say, not sex workers.
Gonzalez is not, however, supportive of the full decriminalization of sex work — a demand put forward last month by Decrim NY, a new coalition of people who have engaged in sex work either by choice or under coercion. Decriminalization of the sale and purchase of sex, advocates say, is the only way to mitigate danger, isolation, and stigma in one of the only viable jobs for some marginalized New Yorkers, while building trust between sex workers and law enforcement.
Bushwick State Sen. Julia Salazar, one of several legislators supporting Decrim NY, has announced plans for legislation that would decriminalize charges for the sale and solicitation of sex, plus protect third parties like sex workers’ family members, coworkers, roommates and landlords who advocates say can be swept up with existing promotion charges.
Salazar also supports existing legislation to eliminate the loitering statute.
Trafficking, a felony that advocates stress would remain criminalized under their proposal, involves compelling another person to perform sex by force, fraud or coercion.
But Gonzalez cites trafficking concerns in his opposition to decriminalization. “At this point he is cognizant that the issue of sex trafficking and labor trafficking is very real, and any type of changes would have to address that,” Yaniv said.
He added that the DA is eager to discuss the issue further with “organizations and advocates on the front line of providing services to human trafficking victims.”
One such service provider, Sanctuary for Families, is a leading opponent of Decrim NY and helped organize a coalition of women’s rights groups and service providers that rallied outside City Hall on Monday. The coalition supports a so-called “end demand” alternative, the goal of which is to end commercial sex work they see as inherently exploitative and degrading. Police should arrest traffickers and people who purchase and promote sex, they say, not sex workers.
“Only when sex work is decriminalized and destigmatized can we effectively report and fight violence, exploitation, and trafficking within the sex trades.”
“We believe that decriminalization of pimping and sex buying is a dangerous step that would only engender more violence and degradation and put the lives of our clients and others at grave risk,” said Judge Judy Kluger, Sanctuary for Families executive director, in a statement to the Queens Eagle.
Decrim NY argues that decriminalization is central to reigning in abuses in the sex work industry.
“Only when sex work is decriminalized and destigmatized can we effectively report and fight violence, exploitation, and trafficking within the sex trades,” said Nina Luo, a member of Decrim NY’s steering committee.
Decrim NY also wants to eliminate funding for the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, launched in the early aughts, and its Brooklyn counterpart. These are diversion courts for people arrested on prostitution charges such as loitering and unlicensed massage.
Within the model, which still amounts to prosecution, judges issue alternative mandates such as counseling, and most charges are eventually dismissed. Advocates with Decrim NY say the diversion courts are contingent on continued arrests and can still prompt immigration consequences for non-citizens.
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