Manhattan DA Moves Away From Prosecuting Sex Workers

Manhattan district Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. speaks at a news conference announcing charges against Brandon Elliot, following his arrest for attacking an elderly Asian woman, in New York
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has tossed nearly 900 cases involving sex work and unlicensed massage services.
REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., is moving away from prosecuting sex workers and dismissing cases involving sex work and unlicensed massage services.

The office said on April 21 it vacated and dismissed 914 cases issued since the 1970s, including 878 claims tied to Penal Law 230.00, the basic charge for sex work, and 36 for Unlicensed Massage, a crime for fraudulently working in a regulated industry such as massage services without a license.

The office also pledged to dismiss 5,080 loitering cases tied to the repealed loitering law “Walking While Trans,” a statute that unfairly targeted transgender women of color.

Still, the office is not changing its approach to going after others involved in the sex trade, such as buyers.

Vance said tossing the cases will help disenfranchised communities.

“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 said in a written statement. “By vacating warrants, dismissing cases, and erasing convictions for these charges, we are completing a paradigm shift in our approach. These cases — many dating back to the 1970s and 1980s — are both a relic of a different New York and a very real burden for the person who carries the conviction or bench warrant.”

The office’s announcement coincides with their new Decline-to-Prosecute Policy, which means the DA will no longer seek charges against sex workers or for unlicensed massage. Before this rule change, sex workers who were charged had to complete five counseling sessions to get their cases dismissed; now it is optional to utilize the services.

However, those involved in the sex trade are not entirely in the clear under these new policies. Authorities can bring other charges against an individual stemming from a sex work-related arrest, the DA’s office said in a press release. The city’s Human Trafficking Response Unit is tasked with handling any arrest involving these charges.

Earlier this year, DA offices in the Bronx and Queens moved to dismiss similar cases involving sex work-related warrants. In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he no longer wants the NYPD to arrest sex workers for engaging in sex work. However, he did not specify his specific position on sex work decriminalization.

For now, advocates are welcoming the Manhattan DA’s decision.

Cecilia Gentili, the founder of Transgender Equity Consulting and COIN, a free health clinic for sex workers at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, said this is an essential step in decriminalizing the sex trade.

“This resolute action to actively decriminalize sex workers is the kind of change our community has been hoping for, advocating for, for decades,” Gentili said. “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.”

She added, “With the recent passage of the Walking while Trans bill, and the commitment our officials are showing to addressing this draconian use of laws which disproportionately criminalize queer, trans and Black and Brown women, New York City is showing we can do what it takes to do right for all of us!”

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