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Law enforcement authorities have been forced to turn a blind eye to public sex work after district attorneys across New York City stop prosecuting prostitution cases.

1976’s “Walking While Trans” law was repealed in February 2021, effectively barring law enforcement officials from arresting individuals who were witnessed trying to solicit sex in public places.  

Supporters of the measure argued that the “outdated” statute unfairly targeted minorities. “The Senate today corrects an injustice in our penal code that has permitted law enforcement to arrest transgender women—namely those of color, along with immigrants and LGBTQ youth—simply for walking down the street and the clothes they wear,” said bill sponsor state Sen. Brad Hoyman (D-Manhattan).

As a result, city district attorneys began tossing prostitution cases instead of prosecuting them.  In March, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez asked a judge to dismiss 857 open cases that went as far back as 1970, Queens DA Melinda Katz followed suit with 670 cases. A Bronx judge dismissed an astounding 8,000 open cases at the request of DA Darcel Clark.   

Manhattan DA Cy Vance announced that his office would no longer prosecute prostitution and unlicensed massage cases in April, and threw out 5,000 open warrants.  

Sex trafficking experts warn that the prosecution shift is actually damaging to sex workers, as many of them are forced into prostitution by controlling pimps, and neither they, nor the johns that are buying their services are being targeted by law enforcement.  

“The pimp doesn’t give a s–t if his victim is arrested or if she’s not. What the pimp cares about is the bottom line, the dollars,” said former NYC special victims prosecutor Lauren Hersh. “So if the police were arresting the johns and targeting the demand for commercial sex, then ultimately what it would do is cause a chilling effect.”

While prostitution numbers have plummeted, so have arrests of sex work patrons with only four reported in Brooklyn this year. Similarly only two sex work promoters were arrested this year.

“They should be looking at the demand side, because the sex-trafficking industry is a demand-driven industry,” said the director of the Sanctuary for Families legal center. “We’re happy that the NYPD is no longer arresting vulnerable women and girls and LGBTQ people, especially transgender women … but we want to see enforcement around demand.

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