In an historic turn in Albany, efforts to back away from criminalizing sex work have achieved lift-off.
DecrimNY, a new coalition, has gained remarkable visibility pursuing its goal to “decriminalize, decarcerate, and destigmatize” sex work. It has demanded an investigation of the NYPD Vice Squad and, on Monday, the State Senate signaled it will take up a bill to fully wipe clean the criminal records of sex trafficking victims — a measure already passed by the Assembly in previous sessions.
More than 100 activists, including many sex workers, rallied on the Million Dollar Steps at the State Capitol on May 7 holding signs reading, “Communities need more resources, not more policing.” They were joined by legislators sympathetic to the coalition’s soup-to-nuts program for ending the criminalization of sex work.
The coalition of more than 30 organizations was announced in February, in the wake of a 188 percent increase in city arrests for loitering for the purposes of prostitution after a long period of decline. In prior years, 85 percent of arrests were among black and Latinx people, a large number of them transgender women, leading activists and Legal Aid attorneys to charge that the arrest policy was a ban on “walking while trans.” An unusually high number of arrests were in Jackson Heights, a heavily immigrant neighborhood. Prostitution arrests of undocumented residents can lead to deportation.
Brad Hoylman, an out gay West Side state senator who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has joined with Assemblymember Amy Paulin of Westchester in the push to repeal the loitering law that Hoylman said in a statement is “used to profile, harass, and arrest transgender people and people of color.”
A second priority of Decrim NY is expanding the “vacature law” that passed in 2010 and wipes clean the records of person coerced into sex work by sex traffickers. The original law only vacated prostitution-related arrests, explained Chelsea’s Richard Gottfried, chair of the Assembly Health Committee and lead sponsor of the expanded protections that would also vacate convictions for other crime, like larceny, that sex traffickers force their victims to commit. In the Senate, Jessica Ramos of Queens sponsors the legislation. She is the chair of the Labor Committee and one of the new legislators who ousted Independent Democratic Conference senators last year after they had spent years in coalition with the Republicans. Her speech in Spanish at the rally drew rousing cheers from the crowd. Her district includes Jackson Heights — ground zero in the recent binge of police arrests.
The vacature bill was approved by the Senate Codes Committee the day before the demonstrators arrived, in a sign of a close working relationship between Albany’s Democratic leadership and DecrimNY. Criminal records make it more difficult for sex workers to obtain jobs, forcing them to remain in their criminalized activity. Gottfried voiced optimism that the Assembly will approve the measure once again this year.
DecrimNY stresses that repealing prostitution laws is both a racial justice issue and a matter of equity for LGBTQ youth, who Legal Aid reports trade sex at “seven to eight times the rate of their cisgender, heterosexual peers.” Joining the coalition are the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, the New York City Anti-Violence Project, and Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The coalition’s steering committee includes people of color and trans individuals with histories of sex work, several of whom spoke at the Albany rally stressing that they need housing and jobs if they are to leave sex work. They rejected framing the issue as a matter of being “rescued” from sex work, but rather said it was a question of the richest country in the world providing shelter and food to its young people.
Many of the coalition’s leaders obtained their experience from existing reform organizations, like the Red Umbrella Project and the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project. Both of those groups are non-profits, which cannot legally lobby for legislation. DecrimNY, which is not a non-profit, is free to press Albany for legislative reform of laws affecting sex work.
As Gay City News earlier reported, the coalition is asking for an investigation of the NYPD Vice Squad. In an April 5 letter, Ramos, Assemblymembers Ron Kim from Queens and Dan Quart from Manhattan, and out gay Bronx City Councilmember Ritchie Torres called the Vice Squad “a traditional hot bed of corruption.” (A massage parlor sex worker in Kim’s district died trying to escape an NYPD raid.)
The four legislators asked the city Department of Investigation and the NYPD’s inspector general to open an investigation into “recurring incidents” and a culture of “misconduct.” They asked “if the Vice division is meant to solve victim-based crimes, why is prostitution included,” and warned it is “dangerous and offensive to conflate willing participation in the sex trade with human trafficking.” The resources expended on the Vice Squad, they wrote, contrast sharply with skimpy budget for the Sex Crimes Unit, which is “undertrained” and “understaffed.” Meanwhile, members of the Vice Squad have been found to run prostitution rings, intimidate sex workers into giving free sex to avoid arrest, and grope sex workers in order to determine their biological sex. NYPD conduct leaves sex workers “at best fearful, and at worst” filled with “dread,” the four wrote.
Kate Mogulescu, a Brooklyn Law School professor and a member of Decrim NY’s Policy Working Group who was in in Albany on May 7, said that for decades sex workers were jailed without trial because they couldn’t afford the cash bail. Next January, when the new bail reform law takes effect, they will receive a desk appearance ticket and appear in court at a later date with their lawyer.
Legislation fully decriminalizing sex work is still being drafted in the Assembly and the Senate.