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Editorial: Repeal loitering laws that target prostitutes. They’re not effective

A white car drives past women walking in South Los Angeles
Women walk along Figueroa Street in South Los Angeles, in an area where the highest number of prostitution-related arrests in the city are made.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

California makes it a crime to loiter with the intention to commit prostitution, and on first blush the law seems to make perfect sense. It makes it easy for police to intervene in the sex-for-sale trade, which is not only illegal but often practiced by adults and minors who are forced into the activity by force, fear or other form of coercion (along with adults who engage in sex work by choice).

And it gives police a tool to combat virtual red-light districts, which degrade the feeling of safety in marginalized neighborhoods that are already struggling with safety. L.A.’s most notorious “prostitution tracks” include stretches of Figueroa Street in South Los Angeles and Sepulveda and Lankershim boulevards in the San Fernando Valley, and the mere existence of those blocks attracts related crime such as drug dealing and robbery, driving down nearby property values and deterring legitimate business.

But the law doesn’t work the way it ought to. If prostitutes are victims of human trafficking, arrest only exacerbates their trauma. Treating them (instead of their customers) as criminals enhances the power their pimps or other enforcers have over them. The prospect of arrest gives police enormous leverage, which is sometimes exercised to compel them to disclose information about their associates, customers or pimps, potentially subjecting sex workers to retaliation. Actual abuse of sex workers by police officers is not the norm, but neither is it rare.

And people engaged in sex work, whether of their own volition or out of fear or desperation, say that the prospect of arrest makes them less likely to seek help, either to exit their difficult and dangerous trade or to protect their earnings, or themselves, from those who would harm or rob them.

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Besides, “loitering” and “intention,” the two key parts of the law, are extremely subjective and leave too much discretion to police. People not involved in the sex trade have been arrested under the statute merely by being outside in their own neighborhoods and fitting a profile based on their clothing, their race, their age, if they appear to officers to be transsexual, and other subjective factors. In the same way young men and women are sometimes profiled as gang members based on an officer’s interpretation of their appearance, so are they sometimes falsely targeted as prostitutes.

Meanwhile, arrests of actual prostitutes have done little to close down high-frequency sex corridors.

So what does work? In Los Angeles, crime rates in neighborhoods frequented by prostitutes have dropped after police task forces have focused on the supply side: the johns. Using technology and often coordinating with law enforcement offices in other states, sex customers are identified and dissuaded or arrested. Sex workers who no longer fear arrest are more willing to cooperate in stings that target abusive johns and pimps.

Forward-looking law enforcement leaders like Sheriff Tom Dart in Cook County, Ill., have stopped arresting prostitutes altogether and focus instead on outreach and services to address substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence and poverty.

So if California’s prohibition against loitering with intention to commit prostitution does more harm than good, and if there are better ways to protect neighborhoods and to help sex trafficking victims and sex workers, why do we keep the law?

We shouldn’t.

SB 357, soon to face a vote in the Assembly, would repeal the statute that criminalizes loitering with intention to commit prostitution. It deserves support.

There are those who insist that a smarter tactic would be to legalize sex work by competent adults. But that’s an argument for another time and is not what’s before the Legislature. Under the bill, prostitution would continue to be illegal, and prostitutes could still be arrested for offering sex for money. They just could no longer be arrested for looking like they were about to offer sex for money.

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There is an understandable fear that repealing the law will leave some neighborhoods more vulnerable than ever to becoming virtual red-light districts. But as is the case in Cook County, police in California have full tool kits for combating prostitution tracks without arresting prostitutes. So do clinicians and outreach workers well-versed in trauma, mental health, substance abuse and recovery. It’s time to put those better tools to use.


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