Petitioners have succeeded in moving a measure that would effectively decriminalize prostitution in the city of San Francisco to the Nov. 4 ballot.
While prostitution is unlawful under the California Penal Code, the measure – if passed by voters – would ban the San Francisco Police Department from allocating any financial resources for the investigation and prosecution of sex workers on prostitution charges.
Section four of the ballot measure – under the heading “Prostitution Shall Be Decriminalized” – further states that the city, county, and district attorney “shall not subject sex-workers to life long economic discrimination associated with having a criminal record.”
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris criticized the measure, unofficially titled “Enforcement of Laws Related to Prostitution and Sex Workers.” Harris told the San Francisco Chronicle, “This measure is nothing more than a welcome mat for prostitutes and pimps to come and hang out in San Francisco.”
Proponents of the measure are claiming it is needed to give sex-industry workers equal protection under the law and to counter an alleged long-standing cronyism between dance club owners and key decision makers that has resulted in police cracking down on some prostitution outlets but looking the other way from popular nightclubs, even when the clubs were accused of sexual abuses by workers.
Maxine Doogan, founder of the Erotic Service Provider’s Union, wrote in an email reported by the Chronicle, “Workers would like it if crimes like rape, robbery, theft and coercion were vigorously investigated and prosecuted. We want the right to make reports of crimes against us without being retaliated against by the police department.”
According to the ESPU, the petition to have the measure put on the ballot received 12,763 signatures, 5,000 more than are required. The Chronicle reported that three of the signatures came from sitting members of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.
The ballot measure also takes aim at two programs currently used by San Francisco authorities to combat sex industry crime.
The first is the use of federal and state funds to reduce human trafficking, particularly of illegal immigrants, into the sex trade. The ballot measure states, “San Francisco’s law enforcement agencies shall not apply, nor receive federal and state monies that institute racial profiling as a means of targeting alleged trafficked victims under the guise of enforcing the abatement of prostitution laws.”
District Attorney Harris dodged the measure’s thinly veiled implication of racism in explaining why the funds and program are valuable. The ballot measure’s changes “would make it very challenging to investigate and prosecute human trafficking,” she told the Chronicle. “We need to use police resources to investigate where there is a suspicion that women and children, in particular immigrants, are being exploited.”
The second program targeted by the measure is San Francisco’s First Offender Prostitution Program, which allows men arrested for soliciting a prostitute to pay $1,000 fine and attend a class on prostitution in exchange for having the misdemeanor charge against them dropped. In April, an audit by the U.S. Department of Justice found that men who participated in the program were 30 percent less likely to be arrested for soliciting a prostitute than men who did not.
The ballot measure specifically names the First Offender Prostitution Program and would end it.
The ballot measure quotes and draws credibility from an official task force on prostitution established by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1994. According to a release from the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office in February, “The Task Force included representatives from the Mayor’s Office, neighborhood groups, law enforcement agencies, public health agencies, social service agencies, various other City departments, women’s rights advocates and immigrant and prostitute rights groups.”
In 1996, the task force released a report recommending, “City departments stop enforcing and prosecuting prostitution crimes. … [and] that the departments instead focus on the quality of life infractions about which neighborhoods complain and redirect funds from prosecution, public defense, court time, legal system overhead and incarceration towards services and alternatives for needy constituencies.”
Since 1996, the city has acted on some of the task force’s recommendations, but has refrained from following through on its final conclusion – a reallocation of all funds from prostitution enforcement to neighborhood improvement. The ballot measure seeks to see the task force’s full recommendation enacted.
If passed, the ballot measure states that it would take effect Jan. 1, 2009.
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