California is Poised to Ban Prostitution-Related Loitering Arrests

The bill would end arrests for “loitering with the intent to engage in prostitution,” a law critics say targets people based on appearance

A bill to prohibit arrests for “loitering with the intent to engage in prostitution” was finally sent to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk this week, nine months after the measure passed the Legislature.

Senate Bill 357, authored by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), would revoke the state’s current law which bans loitering in a public place with the intent to commit prostitution—a law that advocates say is “inherently discriminatory and targets people not for any action but simply how they look.” In turn, this has resulted in the disproportionate criminalization of trans, Black and Brown women, and has also perpetuated violence toward sex workers.

Meanwhile, opponents argue that the bill would provide a further hindrance to law enforcement when it comes to handling quality-of-life issues such as shoplifting and car burglaries, the Associated Press reports. Greg Burt, a spokesman for the California Family Council, and other critics fear the legislation is part of an eventual effort to decriminalize prostitution.

“This bill seems to be perfect if you want sex trafficking to even increase in California,” he told the news outlet. “This bill is really going to affect poor neighborhoods—it’s not going to affect neighborhoods where these legislators live.”

SB 357 would not decriminalize soliciting or engaging in sex work. Rather it would permit those who were previously convicted or are currently serving loitering sentences to petition a court to dismiss and seal the record of the conviction.

The bill has passed both legislative chambers, but Wiener made the uncommon move of stopping the legislation from reaching Newsom’s desk after the Assembly approved the bill in September. According to AP, more than two dozen of his fellow Democrats in the Assembly and Senate either voted no or declined to vote.

Wiener said then that he wanted to take “more time to make the case about why this civil rights bill is good policy that should be signed into law and why this discriminatory loitering crime goes against California values.”

The Senate sent the bill to Newsom on Monday, nine months later.

Burt told AP, he believes lawmakers waited to send the measure until after Newsom overcame the recall election and made it through the June 7 primary election.

But Wiener said he wanted to wait until Pride Month, which celebrates the LGBTQ community.

“It is more important than ever to get rid of a law that targets our community,” Wiener, who is gay, said in a statement. “Pride isn’t just about rainbow flags and parades. It’s about protecting the most marginalized in our community.”

The measure is sponsored in part by groups supporting gay and transgender rights such as the Equality California and Transgender Gender-variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), civil rights organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),
as well as former and current sex workers.

In a statement to lawmakers, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department—an opponent of the bill—said the current law is “often used to keep prostitutes from hanging around public places, business and residential communities, which can breed crime and drug use.” The department argues that while the intent of the measure is good, the unintended consequence is that it will benefit sex buyers.

However, Wiener argues that the loitering measure “essentially allows law enforcement to target and arrest people if they are wearing tight clothes or a lot of make-up.” Similar to legislation that was written into law in New York last year, Wiener said SB 357 is part of a larger movement to end discrimination against and violence toward sex workers and targeted communities.

Once Wiener’s bill reaches Newsom’s desk, he will have 12 days to sign or veto the legislation.

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