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Brooklyn Defenders say mayor’s goal to decriminalize sex work is not enough

September 4, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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Mayor Bill de Blasio took a controversial position on Wednesday when he explained during a press conference that he didn’t think that sex workers should be arrested, and instead it is better to go after the people who exploit them.

“To the question of whether sex workers should be arrested, my broad answer is no,” de Blasio said. “The people who are organizing and profiting from that sex work are the people who should be arrested. Anybody who is exploiting folks who do sex work, those are the people we should be arresting. So we’ll continue to look at the NYPD’s protocols, but I think we have to really go after the true criminals here.”

The announcement was certainly a big deal for advocates fighting to decriminalize sex work.

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“It is long past time we dispel the myth that people arrested on prostitution charges, nearly all of whom are Black, Latinx and Asian transgender and cisgender women, are ‘rescued’ by police officers and benefit from being arrested and prosecuted or placed into court-ordered diversion programs,” said Jillian Modzeleski, senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services. “The mayor’s comments today suggest he agrees that the city should end the arrests of people who do sex work, and we hope he follows through with action.”

However, Brooklyn Defender Services feels that the mayor is not going far enough. The problem, they say, is that cops simply charge the people engaged in sex work for organizing it too.

“The mayor apparently supports the Nordic Model, which decriminalizes the sale of sexual services while continuing to criminalize the promotion and purchase of services,” Modzeleski said.

Jillian Modzeleski, senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Defender Services

“However, our experience shows law enforcement’s distinction between people who engage in sex work and people who organize and profit from — or ‘promote’ — it is a false binary, as the same people are arrested for either charge,” Modzeleski continued. “The people who organize sex work are often sex workers. Moreover, the Nordic Model stigmatizes and criminalizes many parts of the sex work industry and continues to put people who engage in sex work at grave risk.”

If the mayor really wants to protect sex workers from being exploited, BDS argues,  he should disband the NYPD Vice Squad, which it accuses of practicing abusive policing for decades, end arrests for sex workers altogether, and to decriminalize the sale and purchase of sex services.

Brooklyn Defender Services advocates for thousands within the borough each year including sex workers through its Human Trafficking Intervention Unit.

The response by the mayor followed questions about the 27-year-old transgender woman, Layleen Polanco, who died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island last year after being picked up by the NYPD on prostitution and drug charges. The city recently settled a lawsuit with Polanco’s family for $5.9 million.

The mayor offered no details about when the NYPD would implement new protocols.


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