Advocates hope prostitution laws will shift focus away from sex workers

Advocates hope prostitution laws will shift focus away from sex workers
A known corridor for prostitution the part of 47th Street that runs between Cicero and Ashland avenues. Photo by Lucio Villa.

Sex workers, and not their pimps or johns, continue to bear the disproportionate brunt of policing efforts against prostitution, but there is hope a legislative change is on the way.

Illinois is one of just nine states in which second prostitution offenses can be upgraded to a felony charge. While pimps and traffickers are technically prosecuted most severely (with an automatic first-offense felony), it is the sex workers on the streets who are targeted at an exponentially greater rate by law enforcement.

This disproportionate system of punishment could be up for review this year as part of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation’s End Demand Illinois campaign to shift law enforcement’s focus from sex workers to the pimps and johns fueling the trade. The nonprofit has filed a legislative proposal to take away the felony upgrade against sex workers, but they will need a legislative sponsor for a bill to be taken up in the General Assembly.

Lynne Johnson, the director of policy and advocacy for CAASE, called the felony upgrade an “excessively punitive penalty, mostly affecting communities of color and poverty.” According to one of The Chicago Reporter’s recent investigations, over the last four years prostitutes have made up 97 percent of the 1,266 prostitution-related felony convictions in Cook County, with felony charges against them increasing 68 percent between 2008 and 2011.

In Cook County alone, there were 741 felony prostitution admissions in 2011, with another 88 felony charges in the Illinois Department of Corrections, according to data provided by CAASE.

Overall, felony charges for prostitutes have increased dramatically in the last decade. That is largely because of police and prosecutors’ decisions to upgrade charges from misdemeanors.

As Samir Goswami, co-founder of End Demand Illinois, previously told the Reporter, the increase in felony charges was spurred by pressure from community groups on the police to crack down on prostitution in the early 2000s. That sparked a 45 percent jump in felony charges between 2003 and 2004.  

But as our previous investigation mentioned, that kind of targeting of sex workers alone may not be having its intended effect.

Daria Mueller, associate director of state affairs for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, contends felony convictions only undermine efforts to divert sex workers from the industry into the civilian workforce.

“There’s the false assumption that the felony upgrade does something to prevent prostitution, when I would say that it only promotes it,” she said. “Removing the felony enhancement removes lifetime employment and housing barriers.”

It would also save the state a significant amount of money. A study by Loyola University Criminal Justice and Criminology professor David Olson found that Cook County Department of Corrections spends $143 a day per pre-trial detainee. With women averaging 58 days in detainment, the estimated cost of felony prostitution cases in 2011 alone was just over $6 million, with another $1.39 million spent in the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Appearing soft on crime is unlikely to appeal to Illinois legislators but the financial merits of rescinding the penalty could garner support for the bill.

Approving such a measure would also be in line with recent legislation pushed by End Demand Illinois that Illinois lawmakers have passed in recent years.

In August, the General Assembly passed a bill that expands the scope of the state’s involuntary servitude law. In the past, evidence of physical force was required to build cases against traffickers. The new law incorporates a swathe of schemes, both physical and psychological, that traffickers commonly employ to coerce women into the industry and to prevent them from leaving, such as withholding pay or preventing them from seeing their families.

This legislation builds on the 2010 Illinois Safe Children Act, which protects minors from being prosecuted for prostitution offenses and increases penalties for “exploiting minors.” It also complements a 2011 act allowing former sex workers to vacate felony charges if they can prove they were the victims of sex trafficking.

But regardless of such measures, the fact is that it is the people on the front lines of the trade who remain most at the mercy of the law. “The reason we have women who are ending up with dozens of prostitution convictions is because the poverty and the control of the pimps is never resolved,” said Mueller.

Until those issues are addressed, advocates say sex workers will continue to be cycled in and out of prison, with decreasing prospects of ever extricating themselves from the trade.

--Written by James Reddick

This story contains corrected and updated information about Samir Goswami’s position with End Demand Illinois; the number of states that carry a second offense felony charge for prostitution; and clarifies the legislative proposal put forward by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.

The editors regret the errors.

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