Bill Watch

New Bill Would Grant Sex Workers Who Report Violent Crimes Immunity From Arrest and Criminalization

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

A new bill from Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) aims to ensure that sex workers who are victimized or who witness violent or otherwise serious crimes are not funneled into the criminal justice system themselves when they come forward to report crimes to the police.

We’re all worse off when crime victims do not feel safe coming forward, for fear of arrest,” said Sen. Wiener. “This legislation is about protecting victims and increasing public safety.”

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.

“Predators view sex workers as easy targets because the illegality of their work makes the police a natural threat; abusers know most sex workers will never go to the police, and they take advantage of that,” said Pike Long, MPH, Deputy Director of St. James Infirmary.

The bill, SB 233, would take a step toward ensuring that people engaged in sex work are not treated like criminals when they report crimes like sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking, robbery, assault, kidnapping, threats, blackmail, extortion, and burglary.

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

SB 233 would also prohibit 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.

Even trafficked children have long been treated as criminals in California and across the nation. In 2016, CA legislators enacted SB 1422, a law to ensure that exploited children and teens under the age of 18 who might otherwise be charged with criminal prostitution and locked-up, are instead treated as victims and connected with treatment and other services. (One year earlier, in 2015, then-LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell told department members to treat “child victims and survivors of rape,” as the victims they are, rather than criminals and “prostitutes.”)

Last year, San Francisco became the first jurisdiction in the nation to enact a policy similar to SB 233. In the same manner, the SF District Attorney’s Office’s “Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers” policy protects 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.”

Image: Senator Scott Wiener announces SB 233.

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