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Brooklyn DA hedges support for sex work decriminalization

April 25, 2019 Emma Whitford
Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez. Eagle file photo

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez clarified his position on the decriminalization of sex work at a panel in Manhattan Wednesday evening, outlining a proposal that could eliminate the prosecution of some prostitution-related charges, even as the policing of sex work continues.

Diversion courts — where people charged with prostitution appear before a judge and are mandated to attend counseling — are the current precedent in New York City. Gonzalez suggests an alternative in which people could access those services without first having to appear before a judge.

“I am pretty confident in the next few weeks, what we are doing in Brooklyn will change — in ways that I think are centered on providing survivors of prostitution meaningful services that are not predicated on them being subjected to a court system,” Gonzalez told a crowded room of service providers and advocates at the Times Square office of the law firm Proskauer.

The Brooklyn DA is, however, supportive of police efforts to curtail sex work. On Wednesday he endorsed arresting people who purchase sex “before they victimize another person.” He added that “we have to be mindful” of community complaints related to quality of life.

Gonzalez made headlines earlier this month for announcing at a Brooklyn forum: “I believe in decriminalization.” Gay City News first reported on the remarks. The event, hosted by the Lambda Independent Democrats, featured advocates, public defenders and elected officials supporting Decrim NY, a coalition of people who have engaged in sex work either by choice or under coercion and are advocating for New York to decriminalize the sale and purchase of sex.

Gonzalez’s comments Wednesday “don’t contradict what he said in the Decrim NY forum, when he discussed not prosecuting sex workers,” said Brooklyn DA spokesperson Oren Yaniv in an email.

The remarks this week came as grassroots groups and service providers draw battle lines over the question of decriminalization, an emerging criminal justice issue both nationally and locally.

Wednesday’s event organizers, part of a new coalition called the New York Alliance Against the Legalization of Prostitution, support the so-called Nordic Model, which aims to end a commercial sex trade they see as inherently exploitative.

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Police should arrest people who purchase and promote sex, they say, not “prostituted people,” a term they prefer to sex work. Decriminalizing the purchase of sex would be “catastrophic” to anti-human trafficking efforts in the state, said Dorchen Leidholdt, who directs the legal center at NYAALP member organization Sanctuary for Families.

Decrim NY counters that only striking the sale and purchase of sex from the penal code will mitigate isolation, stigma and danger — including the risk of police violence — in one of the only viable jobs for some marginalized New Yorkers. This will ultimately help build trust between sex workers and law enforcement and encourage reporting on alleged human trafficking, they say.

Decrim NY is also working with state legislators to propose changes to the state’s prostitution promotion laws, which they say can sweep up sex workers’ family members, coworkers, roommates and landlords. (NYAALP condemns this as an effort to protect pimps and “other third-party exploiters” from law enforcement.)

“It’s a two-faced lie to claim decriminalization while supporting the Nordic Model,” said Decrim NY member Nina Luo in a statement following Wednesday’s event. “Criminalizing clients takes away many people’s only survival mechanism, it forces the entire industry underground, making reporting of violence and trafficking more difficult.”

Sitting next to Inspector James Klein, head of the NYPD vice unit, Gonzalez assured the crowd on Wednesday that collaboration with police will remain central to his office’s strategy. “We can’t not be mindful that we need the police to be out there to help ferret out trafficking,” he said. Rather than arraigning people charged with prostitution, “We might be able to figure out different ways to provide services at the point of contact with the police department.”

City and state lawmakers sent a letter to the Department of Investigation on April 5 urging the office to investigate allegations that vice police officers abuse sex workers. Among the signees were Decrim NY supporters Assemblymembers Dan Quart and Ron Kim and State Sen. Jessica Ramos.

“Policing is the problem,” Luo said. “Policing is not, and never will be, outreach.”

Emma Whitford is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn. You can follow her work on Twitter

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