Stop Treating Sex Workers as Criminals: Study

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Photo by Blemished Paradise via Flickr

Police and the courts need to dramatically change the way they deal with prostitution, beginning with treating sex workers and trafficking victims as individuals who need counseling and help to remake their lives— rather than as criminals—said an Urban Institute report released today.

“The criminalization of prostitution and, more generally, negative interactions with the police discourage the reporting of, and therefore investigation of and response to, violence and exploitation,” declared the report, entitled “Consequences of Policing Prostitution.”

The report’s authors studied 1,413 prostitution-related cases in New York City between February 2015 and March 2016. The study used data from the Exploitation Intervention Project (EIP) operated by The Legal Aid Society in New York, as well as interviews with EIP clients.

In many of the cases, the clients reported being subjected to verbal abuse, racial profiling and even propositioning by police officers.

A 44-year-old black female, for example, reported being paraded with handcuffs in front of officers after she was arrested: “It was like a show…., They were laughing and it was fun, it was fun for them, it was a good night.”

Some 89% of the EIP’s clients analyzed for the study were individuals of color, and many had histories of being sexually abused. More than one-third had been or were currently being trafficked. Nearly half (45%) had been arrested for prostitution when they were under 18.

Criminalizing prostitution impedes an individual’s chances to find housing or gainful employment that would enable them to find alternatives, the study said.

The treatment of sex trafficking victims in particular was criticized by the authors, Meredith Dank of John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Jennifer Yahner and Lily Yu of the Urban Institute.

“Entrenching anti-trafficking efforts in the policing of prostitution is harmful,” they wrote, noting that trafficking victims are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and should be provided with counseling rather than putting them in handcuffs.

“Trafficking prevention…necessarily starts with economic and gender justice and involves preventing homelessness, family violence, child abuse, and all sexual abuse and assault.”

The study, one of the first to systematically examine the backgrounds and outcomes of people criminalized for prostitution within a single jurisdiction, was assisted by Kate Mogulescu and Katie Beth White of The Legal Aid Society of New York.

Although it recommended that authorities de-criminalize prostitution, it also suggested initial steps that courts and police could take to that would have the same effect:

  • Police could cease arresting people for prostitution or send individuals to court-based prostitution diversion programs, where their charges could be dismissed as “if they never happened, so participants can immediately move forward unburdened by negative consequences of an arrest or conviction record.”
  • Judges should be careful not to “impose further stigma, embarrassment, or danger on those facing criminal charges on prostitution offenses through language, comments, or imposing assumptions or judgment.”

In one ominous note suggesting a growing problem in New York City, the study also found that the number of Asian individuals arrested in connection with both unlicensed massage and prostitution charges increased by over 2,700 percent between 2012 and 2016—from 12 to 36 cases.

This summary was prepared by TCR intern Davi Hernandez


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