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'Over The Last Decade We’ve Learned,' Manhattan DA Will No Longer Prosecute Sex Workers

In addition to halting the practice of prosecuting sex workers, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said his office is moving to vacate over 5,000 cases of prostitution and cases which targeted vulnerable populations dating back to the 1970s.

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The Manhattan district attorney’s office has announced that they are no longer prosecuting sex workers and that they will be vacating thousands of convictions retroactively.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced the new policy on Wednesday, declaring that his office would be halting the practice of prosecuting sex workers as well as retroactively ending past and future prostitution-related cases. A press release states that the office is asking to vacate over 5,000 cases dating back to the 1970s.

Vance’s office has identified 5,994 cases in its records for prostitution, unlicensed massage, or loitering for the purpose of prostitution. They have moved to vacate all of them, dismiss 879 prostitution cases and 36 cases of unlicensed massage. They are dismissing 5,090 cases of loitering for the purpose of prostitution cases, which has been commonly known as the “walking while trans” law.

The latter has been widely criticized as a way for law enforcement to target transgender individuals for walking down the street. The state repealed “walking while trans” in February. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called that now-outdated charge "one example of the ugly undercurrents of injustices that transgender New Yorkers -- especially those of color” faced for merely walking down the street. The law was meant to prohibit loitering for the purpose of prostitution, but allowed police to arrest anyone appearing trans who were in an area known for sex work.

“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 the press release. “For years, rather than seeking criminal convictions, my Office has reformed its practice to offer services to individuals arrested for prostitution. Now, we will decline to prosecute these arrests outright, providing services and supports solely on a voluntary basis. By vacating warrants, dismissing cases, and erasing convictions for these charges, we are completing a paradigm shift in our approach. These cases – many dating back to the 1970s and 1980s – are both a relic of a different New York, and a very real burden for the person who carries the conviction or bench warrant.”

The '70s and '80s marked a time in the city's history in which police were harsh on sex workers during their efforts to halt crime.

The office will continue, however, to prosecute other crimes related to sex trafficking and prostitution, solely purchasers and organizers.

“We support the decision by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to stop prosecuting section 230.00, meaning people engaged in prostitution and ‘unlicensed practice of a profession’ cases as they relate to prostitution, and to dismiss 6,000 loitering and prostitution-related cases,” Rev. Dr. Que English, Dorchen Leidholdt and Alexi Meyers, co-chairs of The New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition stated. “Black, Brown and East Asian women and girls, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ people have been disproportionately harmed by these laws.”

With this decision, Manhattan joins cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, areas that have decided to stop prosecuting sex workers. Earlier this year, Brooklyn also announced that they are dismissing hundreds of open cases related to prostitution and loitering and that they are aiming for over one thousand. The Queens district attorney announced last month that they too are moving to dismiss hundreds of prostitution cases.

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