Council Speaker tells Albany to repeal ‘archaic’ loitering law without decriminalizing sex trade

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson urged state lawmakers to repeal the loitering law without decriminalizing the sex trade. Photo by John McCarten/City Council via Flickr

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson urged state lawmakers to repeal the loitering law without decriminalizing the sex trade. Photo by John McCarten/City Council via Flickr

By Emma Whitford

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson today urged state lawmakers to pass a bill that would eliminate the charge for “loitering for the purposes of engaging in a prostitution offense.”

The misdemeanor charge is disproportionately deployed in Queens, against people trading sex and individuals profiled as sex workers. In a class action lawsuit backed by the Legal Aid Society, plaintiffs argue that police unfairly issue the charge based on a person’s appearance, targeting in particular trans women and women of color.

“I think we can all agree: what you choose to wear should never be an indicator of criminality,” Johnson said Thursday. “But that's exactly what the state does with its archaic and wrongheaded law ... this is blatant misogyny. This law must be repealed immediately.”

Johnson’s call came during a criminal justice reform speech at John Jay College in Manhattan, and marked the Speaker’s first public comment on a bill supported by Decrim NY, a new coalition of sex workers and trafficking survivors who demand the decriminalization of the adult sex trade in New York.

But Johnson told reporters after the speech that he is not aligned with Decrim NY, and that police should continue to arrest people who purchase sex.

“I don’t support the Decrim NY proposal,” he said. “I think that we need to provide support services for women and individuals who have been trafficked and are part of the sex trade, but I don’t support saying that there could be no penalties involved for other individuals who are looking to purchase sex.”

That perspective aligns Johnson with groups who are staunchly opposed to Decrim NY, including the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) and Sanctuary for Families, both of whom had members in attendance Thursday.

Those groups argue that police should continue to arrest people who purchase sex and strive to stamp out the sex trade entirely. (They also say that Decrim NY supports the “legalization” of prostitution, though the coalition counters that they are not advocating for a legal, regulated system.)

After Johnson’s speech, CATW Director Taina Bien-Aimé praised the Speaker’s stand on loitering, as well as his “courage to state that he is not in favor of the legalization of prostitution.”

But Decrim NY counters that only decriminalization of the sale and purchase of sex will reduce stigma and increase safety for people in the sex trades by choice, through coercion or because of economic necessity. Their platform preserves all mechanisms for prosecuting sex trafficking.

The group expressed disappointment Thursday, even as they praised the Speaker’s position on the loitering charge and his pledge to fund a wraparound service center that includes with healthcare, legal counseling and other services for people in the sex trades.

“The Speaker is positioning the city to further marginalize the very same communities the service centers will benefit,” said the coalition, which includes Make the Road NY and VOCAL-NY, in a lengthy statement. “Criminalizing clients of sex workers and sex workers’ peer networks will lead to further housing instability, police surveillance and brutality.”

Legislation to eliminate the loitering charge is sponsored by State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) and Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale). A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not immediately comment Thursday. The bill has not been discussed in conference in the Senate, a spokesperson confirmed. Decrim NY is planning to introduce a package decriminalization bill before June, co-sponsored by Queens State Sen. Jessica Ramos.

Loitering arrests spike by 188 percent in 2018 — the first increase since 2012 — even as overall prostitution-related charges declined. Last year, 94 percent of the people arrested for loitering in New York City were Black or Hispanic.

More than half of 121 loitering arrests took place in Queens, according to data obtained by the news website Documented NY. Public defenders say they are concentrated in the immigrant-heavy neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Elmhurst.

A prostitution-related arrest can lead to deportation for a non-citizen. Even a sealed case can hurt a person’s chances for asylum or a green card.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who announced Thursday that he is running for president, said last month that he is “not comfortable” with decriminalization. His office did not immediately comment on the loitering bill.