Manhattan to Drop Prostitution Arrests En Masse

The Wednesday announcement from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office covers thousands of cases dating back to the 1970s, as well as about 900 open cases related to prostitution or unlicensed massage.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance announces an initiative in 2018 to New Yorkers who leave jail or prison reenter society. (NYC image via Courthouse News)

MANHATTAN (CN) — In a major step toward the decriminalization of sex work, the Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance told a judge Wednesday that his office will stop prosecuting arrests for prostitution and unlicensed massage.

“For years, rather than seeking criminal convictions, my office has reformed its practice to offer services to individuals arrested for prostitution,” Vance said at a virtual court hearing this morning before Judge Charlotte Davidson. “Now, we will decline to prosecute these arrests outright, providing services and supports solely on a voluntary basis.”

In addition to vacating nearly 6,000 bench warrants en masse, some dating as far back as the 1970s, Vance moved to dismiss 878 underlying prostitution cases and 36 underlying cases related to unlicensed massage.

“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. “By vacating warrants, dismissing cases, and erasing convictions for these charges, we are completing a paradigm shift in our approach,” he added.

The announcement follows a trend begun in cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore to focus on more serious crimes and all but abandon ones involving drugs and prostitution, but no violence.

State Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt denounced Vance’s tactics as “the latest in a string of pro-criminal policies that will lead to increase in crime and further deterioration in public safety and quality of life.”

“The twisted priorities of New York’s radical progressive politicians seem intent on returning us to a dark period in the city’s history,” Ortt said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “It will also hurt the women — many of whom are underaged — trapped in sex trade. Apparently, it’s the 1970s in New York again; last one out grab the disco ball,” he added.

Vance said his office will ask the New York City Police Department to notify all individuals arrested for prostitution-related crimes that their cases will not be processed, and to also provide them with a written list of resources.

Following New York state’s repeal of a 1976 statute known as “Walking While Trans” earlier this year, Vance also moved Wednesday to dismiss 5,080 cases of loitering for the purpose of prostitution.

With an extremely broad definition of loitering, and enforcement left entirely to the discretion of police officers, the law led overwhelmingly to the arrests of law-abiding transgender and cisgender women of color.

“Many of these warrants were issued at a time when we did not recognize the circumstances that these individuals were facing,” Vance said at the virtual hearing. “In many of these matters, vulnerable people have faced significant collateral consequences, and live even now under the threat of being detained based on pending bench warrants.”

Cecilia Gentili, founder of Transgender Equity Consulting, praised Vance’s action Wednesday as the kind of change our community has been hoping for, advocating for, for decades.”

“This initiative to end the prosecution of people who are simply trying to work to survive through a depressed economy, and to immediately dismiss the almost 6,000 bench warrants for loitering, prostitution, and non-licensed massages, is one of the most significant steps taken nationally in the effort to stop criminalizing sex work,” Gentili said.

Two years ago, progressive Democrat Tiffany Cabán’s primary campaign for Queens district attorney propelled decriminalizing sex work into the national conversation.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren endorsed her while campaigning themselves for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Warren expressed openness to the idea of eliminating criminal penalties for prostitution.

Queens receives a disproportionate share of prostitution arrests, particularly in the areas of Flushing and Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, which has been labeled the “epicenter” of New York City sex trafficking.

Endorsed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cabán vowed to stop referring these cases to prosecution if elected, but was narrowly defeated in the 2019 primary race by Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.

Notwithstanding Katz’s establishment backing, the new Queens prosecutor requested the dismissal last month of nearly 700 cases where people were detained, arrested, and charged with loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution and prostitution-related crimes.

“Instead of prosecuting these defendants, we need to provide a helping hand by connecting them with meaningful services, support options and the necessary tools that will assist them to safely exit the sex trade if that is what they choose to do,” Katz wrote.

One week later, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez similarly asked the court to vacate 857 open bench warrants related to prostitution and loitering for the purposes of prostitution, and also called on legislators to expunge old prostitution-related convictions.

Last month, Vance, 66, announced that he would not be seeking reelection.

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