Sacramento, Calif. (AP) — California lawmakers on Monday finally sent Governor Gavin Newsom a hot potato of a bill that would bar police from making arrests for prostitution charges, nine months after the measure passed the legislature.
Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener and other supporters said arrests with the intent to engage in prostitution often depend on police officers’ perceptions and disproportionately target transgender, black and Latino women.
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Critics see this as a further erosion of criminal penalties that bind the police to quality of life issues such as shoplifting and car theft. California Family Council spokesman Greg Burt and other opponents fear it is part of a final effort to decriminalize prostitution.
“If you want sex trafficking to increase in California, this bill sounds perfect,” he said. “This bill is going to affect really poor neighborhoods – it won’t affect the neighborhoods where these legislators live.”
This bill will not decriminalize soliciting or engaging in sex work. This would allow those who were previously convicted or are currently serving a sentence to ask the court to quash and seal the conviction record.
The measure passed both legislative chambers, but Wiener took the unusual step of preventing the bill from going to Newsom when the Assembly approved the measure in September, with no votes left. More than two dozen of his fellow Democrats in the Assembly and Senate either did not vote or refused to vote.
He wanted the time, Wiener then said, “to make the case for why this civil rights bill is good policy … and why this discriminatory crime is against California values.”
The Senate finally sent the bill to Newsom on Monday.
But in the nine months since lawmakers took action, crime, homelessness and the perception that California’s major cities are becoming more unsafe have intensified, providing fodder for political campaigns in November’s election. .
Among supporters of the bill is San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who was recalled from office by voters mid-term after critics launched a campaign labeling her as soft on criminals.
Newsom, a Democrat who was running for re-election last year after being easily recalled, has said more needs to be done to address homelessness and shoplifting. Newsom spokesmen did not immediately comment on Wiener’s bill.
Burt believes lawmakers waited to send it to Newsom until the governor defeated the recall and made it safely through the June 7 primary election.
The bill is partly sponsored by groups supporting gay and transgender rights, and Weiner said he waited until Pride Month to send the measure to Newsom, which celebrates the LGTBQ community.
“It’s more important than ever to get rid of a law that targets our community,” said Wiener, who is gay. “Pride isn’t just about rainbow flags and parades. It’s about protecting the most marginalized people in our community.”
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the nation’s largest such agency, and California’s 75,000-member Peace Officers Research Association are among opponents. Both say repealing it would hinder prosecution of perpetrators of crimes related to prostitution and human trafficking and make it harder to identify and assist victims.
In a statement to lawmakers, the sheriff’s department said the law “is often used to keep prostitutes hanging around public places, business and residential communities, which can lead to crime and drug use.”
While the intention is good, the unintended consequences would be to benefit sex buyers, the department said.
But Wiener said the revolving law “essentially allows law enforcement to target and arrest people if they are wearing tight clothing or a lot of makeup.” Similar legislation became law in New York last year, and Weiner introduced her bill as part of a larger movement to end discrimination and violence against sex workers.
The debate divided sex workers and advocates, with the American Civil Liberties Union of California supporting it and the nonpartisan National Center on Sexual Exploitation opposing it.
Once formally arrived at his desk, Newsom will have 12 days to sign or veto the measure.
Two other related measures are already in law.
A bill passed in 2016 prohibited the arrest of minors for prostitution, with the intention of treating them as victims. The 2019 bill bars the arrest of sex workers if they are reporting various offenses as victims or witnesses. The same law prohibits the use of condoms as a reason for arrest.
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