Bill Watch

Gov. Newsom Signs Bill to Protect Sex Workers From Criminalization When They Report Crimes

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

On Tuesday, July 20, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an important bill meant to ensure that sex workers who are victimized or who witness violent crimes are not funneled into the criminal justice system themselves when they come forward to report those crimes to the police.

The goal, according to SB 233‘s author, Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), is to make sure that crime victims can “feel safe” reporting crimes like sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking, robbery, assault, kidnapping, threats, blackmail, extortion, and burglary to local law enforcement.

Statistically, women and men who engage in sex work are far more likely to become victims of violent crime than the general public. Approximately 60 percent of sex workers experience violence in the course of their work, according to a 2014 report from the University of California San Francisco and St. James Infirmary. Researchers found that 40 percent of those people who reported their victimization to law enforcement rated their experience with police as negative.

“If sex workers risk arrest for reporting a crime, they simply won’t come forward, and violent criminals will go free,” Sen. Wiener said.

Specifically, people reporting these serious crimes would be safe from arrest for allegedly engaging in low-level drug and sex work-related crimes listed in the California Uniform Controlled Substances Act (CUCSA) and subdivisions (a) and (b) of Section 647, as well as Section 372 and 653.22.

SB 233 will also ban police from considering possession of condoms probable cause that a person is engaged in sex work.

The state needs “to make it easy and safe for sex workers to access condoms,” Wiener said. “Using condoms as evidence of sex work creates a huge incentive for sex workers not to carry or use them. Criminalizing possession of condoms undermines our efforts to reduce HIV prevention.”

The proposed legislation is part of a larger movement toward decriminalizing and sex work and treating people forced into sex trafficking as victims, rather than criminals.

Last year, San Francisco became the first jurisdiction in the nation to enact a similar policy to protect sex workers from being arrested for misdemeanor prostitution or related charges “in order to create an environment where individuals who are victims or witnesses of violent crime are able to come forth to report violence.”

As San Francisco goes, so goes the state.

Earlier this month, Gov. Newsom also signed another noteworthy criminal justice reform bill, AB 1421, which will combat recidivism and mass incarceration by prohibiting law enforcement agencies from arresting a person on probation for their inability to pay court-ordered fees and fines, if that person is completing all other terms of their supervision.

The enactment of the bipartisan AB 1421 will bring just “a little more justice in the criminal justice system,” said the bill’s author, Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda).

CA Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) estimated that it costs more than $58,000 per year, on average, to incarcerate someone in a local jail. In contrast, it costs the state more like $4,500 to keep someone on probation for a year.

More importantly, though, the bill will ensure that individuals who cannot pay the often hefty fees and fines attached to supervision will not be re-arrested and have their probation revoked unnecessarily.

Image: Senator Scott Wiener announces SB 233.


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