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Manhattan to stop prosecuting prostitution, part of nationwide shift

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., asked a judge on Wednesday morning to dismiss 914 open cases involving prostitution and unlicensed massage, along with 5,080 cases in which the charge was loitering for the purposes of prostitution.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., asked a judge on Wednesday morning to dismiss 914 open cases involving prostitution and unlicensed massage, along with 5,080 cases in which the charge was loitering for the purposes of prostitution.Craig Ruttle/Associated Press

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office announced on Wednesday that it would no longer prosecute prostitution and unlicensed massage, putting the weight of one of the most high-profile law enforcement offices in the United States behind the growing movement to change the criminal justice system’s approach to sex work.

The district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., asked a judge on Wednesday morning to dismiss 914 open cases involving prostitution and unlicensed massage, along with 5,080 cases in which the charge was loitering for the purposes of prostitution.

The law that made the latter charge a crime, which had become known as the “walking while trans” law, was repealed by New York state in February.

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The announcement represents a substantive shift in the office’s approach to prostitution. Many of the cases Vance moved to dismiss dated to the 1970s and 1980s, when New York waged a war against prostitution in an effort to clean up its image as a center of iniquity and vice.

“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 in a statement.

The office will continue to prosecute other crimes related to prostitution, including patronizing sex workers, promoting prostitution and sex trafficking, and said that its policy would not stop it from bringing other charges that stem from prostitution-related arrests.

That means, in effect, that the office will continue to prosecute pimps and sex traffickers as well as people who pay for sex, continuing to fight those who exploit or otherwise profit from prostitution without punishing the people who for decades have borne the brunt of law enforcement’s attention.

Manhattan will join Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other jurisdictions that have declined to prosecute sex workers. Brooklyn also does not prosecute people arrested for prostitution but instead refers them to social services before they are compelled to appear in court — unless the district attorney’s office there is unable to reach them.

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The Brooklyn district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, in January moved to dismiss hundreds of open cases related to prostitution and loitering, and said that he would eventually ask that more than 1,000 be dismissed. The Queens district attorney, Melinda Katz, followed in March, moving to dismiss hundreds of prostitution-related cases.

Vance’s office had been in the practice of dismissing prostitution cases after sending those charged to mandatory counseling sessions. Going forward, Vance’s statement said, such counseling sessions would be provided only on a voluntary basis.

Sex workers have been fighting for decriminalization for decades. But the 2019 formation of Decrim NY, a coalition of organizations that support full decriminalization and has worked to lobby lawmakers, represented a turning point for the movement.

In New York City, those calls have grown louder. Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, called on the state to end criminal penalties for sex workers.

“The communities hit hardest by the continued criminalization of sex work and human trafficking are overwhelmingly LGBTQ, they are people of color, and they are undocumented immigrants,” McCray said at the time. “Sex work is a means of survival for many in these marginalized groups.”