Manhattan is one step closer to decriminalizing sex work.
On Wednesday, the boroughs’ District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. announced his office will no longer prosecute prostitution-related offenses, citing the disproportionate impact these laws have on women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. Vance and his team are also looking to dismiss more than 900 cases involving “unlicensed massage” and prostitution, as well as over 5,000 cases related to New York’s anti-loitering statute.
“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 press release. “ … 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 move received praise from a number of groups advocating for sex workers’ rights, however, many noted that it doesn’t fully decriminalize prostitution. Although the policy states officers can no longer prosecute these offenses, it “does not preclude us from bringing other charges that may stem from a prostitution-related arrest.” The New York Times reports these charges include sex-trafficking, promoting prostitution, and “patronizing sex workers,” which means those who purchase these services are still at risk of being prosecuted.
“We welcome this action from DA Vance to dismiss all pending prostitution and unlicensed massage related cases as well as his new policy to decline to prosecute these arrests going forward,” said Abigail Swenstein, Staff Attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Exploitation Intervention Project. “We thank the DA’s office, and most notably, the prosecutors in the human trafficking unit, who have listened to and acted on the knowledge gained from speaking to advocates and most importantly, survivors and those with lived experience as sex workers. However, this policy should not supplant the need to pass legislation that would fully decriminalize sex work and provide for criminal record relief for people convicted of prostitution offense ...”
The announcement comes months after the Kings County DA made a similar move. Back in January, DA Eric Gonzalez said his office would stop prosecuting prostitution arrests, and was moving to dismiss over 1,000 prostitution-related warrants from the last five decades.
“Vacating these warrants and dismissing these cases is consistent with my view that those who engage in these activities need to be offered assistance, not criminally prosecuted,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “I am also calling on Albany to repeal the law that prohibits what is known as loitering for purposes of prostitution, because of the vagueness of the law, the stark racial inequalities in its enforcement, and the disproportionate harm that enforcement of the law has caused to vulnerable trans women in our community.”