DA Candidates Stake Out Positions on Sex Work Decriminalization

The Queens For DA Accountability coalition hosted a forum at CUNY Law on Tuesday.  Eagle  photo by Paul Frangipane.

The Queens For DA Accountability coalition hosted a forum at CUNY Law on Tuesday. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane.

By Emma Whitford

Jennifer Orellana, a transgender woman and former sex worker from Jackson Heights, asked six of the seven announced candidates for Queens District Attorney to clarify their position on the decriminalization of sex work — an increasingly mainstream topic — at a packed forum at CUNY Law School Tuesday night. Candidates’ responses ranged: from a willingness to consider the issue, to a call for limited prosecution and diversion alternatives, to full-throated support for full decriminalization.

“My question is,” Orellana said in Spanish, “what is your position on the full decriminalization of sex work, including refusing to give charges to prosecute sex workers, clients, family members, couples and landlords who provide services and care of sex workers?”

Orellana took the stage with two other trans Latina women, also former sex workers, from the nonprofit Make The Road New York. Their organization is a partner in Decrim NY, a new coalition of people who have engaged in sex work either by choice or under coercion. Full decriminalization, they say, is the only way to end disproportionate arrests of immigrant women, women of color, and trans women — arrests that can lead to deportation and fail to address basic needs like housing, healthcare and economic stability.

In 2018, more than half of the city’s prostitution-related loitering arrests took place in Queens. These are on the rise, though overall prostitution arrests have declined more than 60 percent citywide since 2012. State Sen. Jessica Ramos of Jackson Heights is one of several legislators supporting Decrim NY, and has announced plans for legislation that would decriminalize charges for the sale and solicitation of sex, plus protect third parties like sex workers’ family members, coworkers, roommates and landlords who advocates say can be swept up with existing promotion charges.

Trafficking, a felony that advocates stress would remain criminalized, involves compelling another person to perform sex by force, fraud or coercion.

Responding to Orellana’s question on Tuesday, former state Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Jose Nieves said that he supports Ramos’s plans and would decline to prosecute all prostitution-related charges.

“I think that’s great legislation,” Nieves said. “We need to decriminalize this conduct and focus on public safety which is really focusing on violent crimes.”

Nieves said he would establish a dedicated human trafficking unit in his office, “because, unfortunately, not all participants in that field are voluntary.”

Tiffany Cabán, the only public defender in the race, was more explicit in her answer Tuesday. “I will decline to prosecute all offenses related to sex work, including the prosecution of customers and landlords,” she said. “As a queer Latina I understand that our trans communities of color are disproportionately affected by these laws.”

That position has encountered strong opposition from a new coalition of women’s rights groups and service providers that rallied outside City Hall on Monday. Organizers, including the service provider Sanctuary for Families, support a so-called “end demand” alternative, the goal of which is to end commercial sex they see as inherently exploitative and degrading. Police should arrest traffickers and people who purchase and promote sex, they say, not sex workers.

“We believe that decriminalization of pimping and sex buying is a dangerous step that would only engender more violence and degradation and put the lives of our clients and others at grave risk,” said Judge Judy Kluger, Sanctuary for Families executive director, in a statement.

But Cabán upholds Decrim NY’s position that prosecuting customers, landlords and other third parties compounds danger, isolation and stigma in one of the only viable jobs for some marginalized Queens residents, while eroding trust between sex workers and law enforcement seeking out traffickers. “Sex work is work,” Cabán said.

Two of the candidates — Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Queens City Councilmember Rory Lancman — voiced their support for the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, a diversion court that launched in the early aughts for people arrested on prostitution charges such as loitering and unlicensed massage. The model, which still amounts to prosecution, has since been replicated across the city. In these courts, judges issue alternative mandates such as counseling, and most charges are eventually dismissed.

Lancman has facilitated more than $2 million in funding for human trafficking courts during his City Council tenure.

“We provide funding to women who are in the human trafficking courts, so they can get services that they need instead of going into jail,” he said.

Lancman has previously indicated that he plans to prosecute people who purchase sex and operate businesses, such as massage establishments, a position in line with Sanctuary for Families. But he hedged Tuesday.

“The question is: how far do you go?” he said. “Do you prosecute Johns? Do you prosecute promoters? … As District Attorney, I’m going to focus on combating trafficking and traffickers.”

While Lancman distinguished between people who are coerced and “those who do engage in that work voluntarily,” Katz only described sex work as coercive in her response to Orellana. Intervention courts help people “get away from what I call the ‘houses of abuse’ that they are in right now,” she said, and “out from under the control of other people.”

Candidate Mina Malik, a veteran prosecutor, was sick with the flu Tuesday and missed the panel. Her spokesperson outlined a case-by-case approach: prosecute buyers and promoters in cases deemed “coercive and predatory,” divert some prostitution charges and decline others.

Advocates with Decrim NY say the diversion courts should be defunded, since they are contingent on continued arrests. “Both sex workers and trafficking survivors experience the HTICs as trauma and violence,” said Nina Luo, a member of the group’s steering committee. “People trading sex still have abusive interactions with police, still have to go to court, still have to risk deportation.”

Two candidates, attorney Betty Lugo and former Judge Gregory Lasak, provided less specific answers.

“People go to jail for no reason, so I would seriously, seriously consider decriminalizing it,” Lugo said, adding that she also supports diversion courts where “sex workers get proper treatment and care.”

Lasak, who has substantial backing from law enforcement unions, cited quality of life concerns.

“The only problem with that is the citizens in the county who are concerned about sex work out on the street and they don’t like their block to be the focal point of that type of trade,” he said. “I have no problem decriminalizing it, but how do you get rid of the problem on the street?”

After the forum, Bianey Garcia of Make the Road, who shared the stage with Orellana, said she was most impressed by Cabán’s support for sex workers and full decriminalization.

“She is the only person that understands, the only person who is saying sex work is work, which is amazing,” Garcia said.