New York state lawmakers have introduced a bill to repeal a 1970s-era criminal law that forbids loitering “for the purposes of prostitution.” The long-criticized law’s “vagueness has led to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement,” targeting “marginalized women in the commercial sex industry, a group at high risk for trafficking and other exploitation and abuse,” the sponsors’ memo says.
Westchester Assemblywoman Amy Paulin and Manhattan Senator Brad Hoylman, both Democrats, have both sponsored the bill in their respective legislative houses.
The law, a violation that becomes a misdemeanor upon repeated offense, has disproportionately affected “cisgender and transgender women of color and women who have previously been arrested for prostitution offenses,” the memo says.
In 2016, the Legal Aid Society filed a federal class-action lawsuit, which is still pending, against the New York City Police Department over its enforcement of the statute. The majority of the named plaintiffs in the suit are transgender women of color. “These women are arrested simply for standing outside, speaking to one another, or walking from a subway or grocery store back to their house,” the memo says.
A separate memo of support from the Bronx Defenders, which provides legal services to indigent clients, says it has also represented women arrested under the law while going about similarly routine activities.
Worse still, charging documents may offer details of defendants’ outfits as implicit proof of a crime, the organization’s memo says. One client “was described as wearing a tank top and a skirt that stopped above the knee, while another was similarly described as wearing shorts in July.”
An array of free legal service providers and advocacy groups like the New York Anti-Trafficking Network and the Women’s Prison Association support the prospective legislation.
The current law sows “distrust of law enforcement,” impeding “broader efforts to investigate and punish more serious criminal activity,” the sponsors’ memo says. “Exposure to repeated arrests, and resulting criminal records, make it difficult for women to leave the commercial sex industry and seek assistance when victimized.”
Human Rights Watch, which also supports the bill, issued a report in 2012 recommending repeal of the “overly broad” statute.
“It’s a new bill, so I’m hoping there’s a lot of support, but I never assume,” Assemblywoman Paulin said in an interview on Thursday. “I think it will ring true to a lot of people.”
A spokesperson for Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not respond to a question as to whether the governor takes a position on the bill.
District attorneys in the Capital Region have prosecuted people under the prostitution loitering law—section 240.37 of the state’s penal law—though not extensively, according to data provided to The Alt by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
Since 2013, there have been 17 arrests under the statute disposed in Rensselaer, Albany, and Schenectady counties. (DCJS compiles arrests and dispositions only by “top charge,” so the actual number conceivably could be higher.)
In more than half of those 17 cases, defendants were sentenced to stints in jail or “time served,” meaning they were credited for time spent in jail awaiting trial or disposition.
Across New York state, including the above-mentioned cases, there have been nearly 1,300 arrest dispositions since 2013.