Opponents claim the bill would take away a tool from law enforcement to help human trafficking victims.
California lawmakers on Friday advanced a bill that would decriminalize loitering with the intent to work as a prostitute, with supporters claiming the current law unfairly targets minorities, according to reports.
The controversial bill will be sent to the governor’s desk in January. (California voters head to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom).
While proponents of the bill say minorities and transgender people are often singled out in disproportionate numbers by the loitering law based on the way they’re dressed, opponents claim the proposal would take away a tool from law enforcement to help sex trafficking victims.
The bill passed 41-26 in the Assembly after intense debate, splitting moderate and liberal Democrats, with Republicans siding with moderate Democrats against the bill. It was to return to the state Senate on Friday for consideration before lawmakers adjourn for the year.
“Holding the bill at the Senate desk is simply a temporary delay,” Catie Stewart, a spokeswoman for state Sen. Scott Wiener, who authored the bill, said, according to the Sacramento Bee. “It provides the senator and our coalition 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should be signed into law and why this discriminatory loitering crime goes against California values and needs to be repealed.”
Wiener said making arrests simply because people “‘look like’ sex workers is discriminatory and wrong, and it endangers sex workers and trans people of color. Anti-LGTBQ and racist loitering laws need to go. Sex workers, LGBTQ people, and people of color deserve to be safe on our streets.”
His office said the current law allows police to scrutinize what the person is wearing, how they’re moving or who they’re talking to in determining if they’re a prostitute, the Bee reported.
The bill would also allow those previously convicted to have their convictions dismissed and the record sealed.
Democratic Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan said in the debate that the current law harms trafficking victims by “criminalizing the victims and leaving them with criminal records that create further barriers to seeking employment, housing and relief.”
Assemblyman Jim Cooper was among the Democrats who disagreed.
“The part about it is those young girls out there,” he said. “What do we do then, how do we deal with that?”
Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris added, “For me, when the unintended consequence is making it more difficult to protect victims of child trafficking, even if it’s just a possibility, that’s not something I can support.”
The law could also empower sex traffickers, Stephany Powell of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, warned, according to the Bee.
“It severely cripples law enforcement’s ability to arrest and prosecute human traffickers and sex buyers. If it’s repealed, sex buyers would have immunity,” she said.
She argued that lawmakers should focus on anti-discrimination laws that raise minorities out of being forced into sex work.
“The assumption becomes that women who are marginalized want to do sex work and it almost becomes, ‘Well, since that’s what you are doing, we are just going to make it legal so you can do it,’” she said, according to the Bee. “If we’re going to talk about things like systemic racism, then use this energy to fix the system where sex work does not have to be their only choice.”