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Manhattan DA Will No Longer Prosecute Sex Workers, Keeps Status Quo on Sex Buyers

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 24: Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance speaks at a press conference at New York City Criminal Court following the conclusion of the Harvey Weinstein trial on February 24, 2020 in New York City. A jury found Weinstein guilty of both rape and criminal sex act, convicting him on two of five charges in a case closely connected to the ongoing #MeToo movement. [Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images]

Manhattan D.A. Cyrus Vance, Jr.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced a new policy on Wednesday of ending past and future prostitution-related cases dating back nearly half a century, in a move hailed by many advocates as a welcome—though unfinished—step toward decriminalizing sex work.

The new policy, the first in the Empire State, will eliminate a broad array of prostitution-related cases, warrants and convictions dating back to 1976–and effectively remove penalties for providing sex work in New York City’s namesake borough. Nearly 6,000 existing cases will likely be zeroed out under the new guidance.

Police will still target and arrest purchasers of sex, however, and the district attorney’s office will still prosecute people who patronize sex workers, which researchers believe will likely mute the impact and efficacy of the policy. The district attorney’s office told Law&Crime that the policy change “does not affect our approach to arrests for Patronizing a Person for Prostitution in the Third Degree (the typical charge for what you call soliciting/purchasing).”

“When someone is first arrested for this charge, our policy is to offer them a plea to Disorderly Conduct (a violation, not a crime), with a health education class, 5 days of community service, a fine, and a two-year stay of sealing,” the district attorney’s office added. “After those requirements are completed and the two years are up, the case is sealed.”

Vance explained the rationale for the policy shift in a press release.

“Over the last decade we’ve learned from those with lived experience, and from our own experience on the ground: criminally prosecuting prostitution does not make us safer, and too often, achieves the opposite result by further marginalizing vulnerable New Yorkers,” Vance wrote. “For years, rather than seeking criminal convictions, my Office has reformed its practice to offer services to individuals arrested for prostitution. Now, we will decline to prosecute these arrests outright, providing services and supports solely on a voluntary basis. By vacating warrants, dismissing cases, and erasing convictions for these charges, we are completing a paradigm shift in our approach.”

The district attorney’s office noted that they have already made an appearance in the Manhattan Criminal Court and moved to dismiss exactly 914 prostitution and unlicensed massage cases along with 5,080 loitering for the purpose of prostitution cases.

“Although my office has not prosecuted this crime since 2016, we have identified 5,080 cases where the top charge is Loitering for the Purpose of Prostitution and there is a pending bench warrant,” Vance said in court on Wednesday. “My office recognizes that the vulnerabilities imposed by warrants relating to the Loitering for the Purpose of Prostitution charge apply equally to many of the people who are charged with prostitution and unlicensed massage. We therefore have identified every case where the top charge is Penal Law 230.00 and there is a pending bench warrant. There are a total of 878 cases that meet this criteria, and they are before the Court as well. We’ve also identified 36 cases where individuals are charged with Attempted Unauthorized Practice of a Profession in the context of offering massage services without a license, and these cases are also before the Court this morning.”

The district attorney went on to say that warrants for those offenses were issued over a time period when society was less inclined to consider the “circumstances” faced by people selling sex. Prosecution for sex work-related offenses, he said, has resulted in “significant collateral consequences” for those targeted by the old mindset and that a “collaboration” with survivors, advocates, and the Legal Aid Society’s Exploitation Intervention Project has resulted in a new way of thinking about how to deal with sex work.

Response was broadly positive but conditional.

Abigail Swenstein, a staff attorney with The Legal Aid Society’s Exploitation Intervention Project, praised Vance’s office but urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would “fully decriminalize sex work and provide for criminal record relief for people convicted of prostitution offense.”

“The Legal Aid Society reaffirms the need for Albany to enact S6419/A8230, legislation that would accomplish this, immediately this session,” Swenstein said.

Vance cited New York State’s repeal of the “Walking While Trans” law as a factor in this change.

For Cecilia Gentili, the founder of Transgender Equity Consulting, this policy shift is “the kind of change our community has been hoping for, advocating for, for decades.”

“This initiative to end the prosecution of people who are simply trying to work to survive through a depressed economy, and to immediately dismiss the almost 6,000 bench warrants for loitering, prostitution, and non-licensed massages is one of the most significant steps taken Nationally in the effort to stop criminalizing sex work,” Gentili wrote, lauding officials for “addressing this draconian use of laws which disproportionately criminalize queer, trans and Black and Brown women.”

Advocates for full decriminalization expressed disappointment about Manhattan’s efforts to embrace the so-called “Nordic model” for sex work.

“This is misleading,” noted Reason editor and sex work researcher Elizabeth Nolan Brown via Twitter. “The city will still prosecute prostitution customers, which means sex workers are still driven underground. Same harms, better PR for [Vance]. It’s a step in the right direction, sure. But it’s not decriminalization, which is what sex workers want. Selling sex will still be illegal, just not prosecuted under some circumstances. Paying a sex worker = still illegal. Sex workers working together = still illegal. Etc.”

Vance’s new Decline-to-Prosecute policy reads, in full:

Over the last decade, we have undergone a paradigm shift in how we understand the experiences of those engaging in prostitution and unlicensed massage. Through the work of our Human Trafficking Response Unit, and through the relationships we have built with survivors, sex workers, and advocates, we have come to a better understanding of the unintended harms of charging individuals with these offenses. To complete the paradigm shift, beginning today, the Office will no longer charge individuals with the offenses of Prostitution (P.L. § 230.00) and attempted or completed Unauthorized Practice of a Profession in the context of unlicensed massage (charged under PL § 110/E.D § 6512(1)), as a standalone charge or in conjunction with other charges. This policy does not preclude us from bringing other charges that may stem from a prostitution-related arrest. Any arrest involving these charges should be referred to the Human Trafficking Response Unit. In cases where they are the sole charge, the Human Trafficking Response Unit will complete all necessary paperwork to formally decline to prosecute these cases and will arrange for information about voluntary services to be provided to the person arrested, but these services will no longer be mandated.

[image via Scott Heins/Getty Images]

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