Prostitution bust offers opportunity for new solutions
Wayne County saw a case recently that District Attorney Patrick Robinson said was a “first” in his 25 years in the office: a prostitution sting that ended with the arrests of a pimp, four women engaged in sex work and four johns.
Firsts offer a rare opportunity for officials to set a precedent and send a message. That’s exactly what Robinson’s office did.
Immediately after the sting, the DA’s office sent a press release to local media that included the names of the arrested parties as well as their photos. He also included a quote—the modern-day equivalent of nailing a public proclamation on the courthouse door.
“The purpose of this prostitution sting was to create a public awareness and deter anyone from buying sex,” Robinson said in the release. “It is a crime and those who are caught will have their mug shots and names published in the media. If these arrests and this press release do not deter prostitution and solicitation of prostitutes in Wayne County, I do not know what will.”
We might as well have put them in stocks in the town square.
Robinson’s intention is clear and, in some respects, admirable. Soliciting or offering sex for money is illegal in Pennsylvania, and Robinson, as the District Attorney, wants people to follow the law. He also wants to prevent human trafficking—a fact he was adamant about in a phone interview this week, noting that there have been trafficking cases in nearby counties. Though law enforcement concluded this was not a human trafficking situation, there were advocates on the scene at the sting in case the women needed help for that problem.
That seems to be where the county draws the line: if it was not immediately clear that these women were the victims of forced sex work, they deserve the scarlet letter. But to whose benefit?
First, there are some important legal distinctions to be made. None of the arrested parties have seen trial, meaning none of the women have been found guilty in a court of law. The women were arrested in a sting. We don’t know how much information the police collected on their situation before slapping on the handcuffs. We don’t know if the pimp they were working for was coercive. The public wasn’t offered that information, and even if the police have it, the women have not yet been given the chance to defend themselves in court.
Robinson noted that the bottom of the press release contains a disclaimer notifying readers that the filing of criminal charges is not evidence of guilt. He also conceded that “some [readers] might not” understand that distinction.” And a simple Google search will bring up these womens’ names attached to the key term “prostitute” for the rest of history. That’s trial by media.
Part of Robinson’s aim is to prevent people from engaging in sex work. “Prostitution, in my opinion, is not a victimless crime,” he said. “It does involve human trafficking, underage girls, drugs, heroin—they entrap these girls by using heroin to keep them in line—and... disease.”
He’s right:, those problems do exist.. But there is no evidence that shows prosecution and public humiliation will solve them. The most recent studies on the U.S. recidivism rate show two thirds of prisoners being rearrested within three years of their release. Police officers in cities across the country will testify to throwing the same women in jail over and over again. Jail time will not deter women from engaging in sex work. Neither will shame. Intervention programs, safe alternatives and the opportunity to move forward with their lives—something the publicization of their arrest tends to make more difficult—might.
And there is some evidence that alternative approaches could help. In Seattle, police officers created a project to offer women in sex work a safe place to stay as an alternative to a jail cell. They called it the Genesis Project. The NYPD began working with female nonprofit workers last year to ensure the safety of sex workers rather than throwing them behind bars, encouraging the arrest of more johns and traffickers rather than sex workers. A web page offered by the West Midlands police offers a litany of options, not only for those who want to report prostitution, but also for those seeking help.
Wayne County could consider working with local nonprofits, such as the Victims Intervention Program. National nonprofits also offer resources, training programs and information on alternatives to incarceration. Research is available on the nuances of sex work in small towns—some of which is tied inextricably to the opioid epidemic. As law enforcement continues to pay needed attention to abuses related to the sex trade, we think that we should seek more productive ways of handling its nuances.