Legislation would reduce punishment for prostitutes, encouraging services and support

Photo Courtesy of NY Senate Media Services
State Senator Liz Krueger and Senator Peter Harckham hold a press conference in the Senate Lobby of the Capitol in Albany on Jan. 23, 2020. Krueger is the sponsor of a bill that would decriminalize prostitutes while increasing penalties for pimps, traffickers, and solicitation.

A new bill would decriminalize people in prostitution in New York, expunge past convictions and help prostitutes exit the sex trade.

At the same time, the proposed law holds pimps, traffickers, brothel owners and illicit massage parlor owners accountable, strengthens anti-trafficking laws, and imposes a fine for solicitation and sex buying with an income-based fine.

The recently drafted bill by Sen. Liz Krueger and Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter, The Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act, was announced on Jan. 25.

Krueger outlined a two-pronged approach for the bill, which she says would both “empower and support people who are currently or formerly in the sex trade” and “address the violence, exploitation, and trauma that is inherent in the buying and selling of sex.”

Essentially, the bill aims to provide legal and social support to the prostitutes themselves while further punishing their clients, pimps and brothel owners.

According to a study conducted by the Urban Institute, nearly 58 percent of prostitutes faced violence and 36 percent had violent or abusive clients. Prostitutes are often vulnerable women who have been taken advantage of and coerced into the profession by sex traffickers, where they may then become victims of physical, mental, verbal and sexual abuse and manipulation. Despite the fact that prostitutes are often victims of violent crime themselves, the legal system has treated them as criminals, and Krueger and Hunter’s bill aims to change that.

“Most who engage in prostitution do so out of coercion or desperation,” Assemblywoman Hunter said. “Our efforts should focus on the traffickers and others who exploit the disadvantaged. Additionally, we should provide support and new opportunities for the previously exploited, not punish them.”

The bill would decriminalize the act of prostitution while also expunging the records of those who have prostitution convictions on their records, as well as legally nullifying any crimes that were committed under coercion of a pimp or sex trafficker.

It would also prevent the arrest of people for “unlicensed practice of a profession,” which is typically used to charge low-level workers who work in businesses that serve as fronts for prostitution. The law would also ban usage of condoms as criminal evidence in trial and prevent prostitutes from being charged with “promoting prostitution” for assisting other prostitutes without profiting.

“What this bill doesn’t allow is a wholesale decriminalization of the sex trade,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the New York Chapter of the National Organization for Women. “New Yorkers can rest assured that the Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act does not extend legal protections to sex buyers and pimps and brothel owners.”

Ossorio went on to clarify that New York will not “become the next sex tourism destination.” The bill does not aim to legalize the profession, but to provide women a path out of it while still holding sex traffickers and purchasers responsible.

The bill would also close loopholes that prevent clients from being charged with “promoting prostitution” for when they purchase prostitutes, as well as eliminating the “ignorance defense” which has been used in the past by clients who have purchased sex from underaged prostitutes to escape harsher charges.

The bill was written with assistance by New Yorkers for the Equality Model, a group of more than 30 sex-trafficking survivors who are dedicated to advocating for the safety and expansion of social services for prostitutes in New York State.

The legislation would also “extend services for minors to young adults up to age 24, enable a broader pool of people to access services from organizations combating gender violence, and create a diverse and inclusive state task force with representation from people in the sex trade and advocates to ensure access and administration of social services.”

While supported by progressives, the bill is not without its critics.

Assemblyman Mike Lawler, R-Pearl River, released a statement on Jan. 26 claiming that the bill would “empower lawbreakers” and criticized Assembly Democrats for focusing on matters that aren’t related to COVID relief.

“Assembly Democrats continue to show us that their priorities don’t lie with the hardworking families of our state,” said Lawler. “Our small businesses are struggling to stay afloat. Families are struggling to pay bills and make ends meet, but instead of focusing on providing relief to those who need it most, Albany decides to prioritize legislation that decriminalizes prostitution.”

In accordance with the idea of lessening punishment on prostitutes themselves, the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York released a statement that supports repealing the crime of “loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution.”

Under current New York law, (Penal Law Section 240.37) “Any person who remains or wanders about in a public place and repeatedly beckons to, or repeatedly stops, or repeatedly attempts to stop, or repeatedly attempts to engage passers-by in conversation, or repeatedly stops or attempts to stop motor vehicles, or repeatedly interferes with the free passage of other persons, for the purpose of prostitution” can be convicted of a misdemeanor.

As is the case with many laws, the issue lies not in the law itself but in the ways in which it is enforced. As the DAASNY release states, “this statute has come to be used in ways that wrongfully profiles people and even lead to their arrest based on nothing more than gender expression or appearance.”

The statement goes on to say that the “vague wording” of the law has been used to justify police harassment of women, trans people and communities of color. DAASNY states that the law serves no purpose in “protecting members of our community” and that it is “an important and necessary step to repeal this law if we are to remedy injustices and regain the trust of all communities.”