Arizona prostitution laws tough rather than effective
Call me cynical, but I was unsurprised to learn that Arizona has some of the harshest laws targeting prostitutes in the country — a first offense carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 days in jail, and by the fourth arrest, the charge is upped to a felony and the jail time becomes 180 days.
For Tucson, these state-mandated minimum sentences for sex workers carry a heavy local price tag. Housing a first-time offender in the county jail for 15 days costs around $1500.
Cities have attempted to find solutions within the confines of the law to limit both these court costs and the unfair treatment of people working as prostitutes, giving rise to a diversion program in Phoenix known as Project ROSE (Reaching Out on Sexual Exploitation) and its newer Tucson cousin, Project RAISE (Responsible Alternatives to Incarceration for the Sexually Exploited).
These diversion programs offer those arrested an alternative to court: Complete six months of group counseling, supported by housing and employment assistance, and the charges will be dropped. Outstanding warrants or prior convictions make one ineligible for the deal.
While I recognize the mostly honorable intentions of initiatives to connect these women and men to social services and soften the effects of our overly harsh prostitution laws, Project ROSE and Project RAISE’s many problems make them unjustifiable.
For one thing, the arrested women and men are not allowed to consult a lawyer before making their decision about whether to participate in diversion. Program proponents have argued that, because charges have not yet been filed, the arrested and handcuffed sex workers are not entitled to legal counsel. But when people have to decide between charges and diversion without even being allowed to ask a lawyer about how serious the threat of charges might be, I think we can agree that there is a problem.
Furthermore, Project ROSE and Project RAISE operate as sting operations. They don’t run year-round, but rather for one or two days at a time. During this time, prostitution arrests are ramped up, and in Tucson, police officers will even directly book an appointment with a prostitute. In Phoenix, city law allows officers to arrest those whom they even suspect of prostitution on a charge of “manifesting prostitution.”
Casting such a wide net to catch as many sex workers as possible is problematic for two reasons.
It compounds the problems that the diversion programs are supposed to be mitigating — mainly that our prostitution laws are harsh and unfair, on the one hand, and the high cost of enforcing the mandatory minimums, on the other. Because not every sex worker picked up in these sting operations will qualify for diversion, and even fewer will complete the program, the programs are counterproductive in the end.
These sting operations also use police and the threat of incarceration to connect a vulnerable population to social services, a major violation of the ethics most charities strive to uphold. Slapping handcuffs on a person and saying, “Here, take our help, or else,” is highly counterproductive. You shouldn’t have to coerce sex workers into taking help you feel they truly need.
But therein lie the problematic assumptions of this entire operation. While it is nice to see governments and police treating sex workers as something other than criminals, the focus on painting them as purely victims is equally troubling and largely paternalistic. Sex work is not synonymous with human trafficking, and prostitutes are not necessarily battered and abused. In a study of sex workers in Chicago, only 4 percent reported violence from pimps, while 32 percent reported violence or harassment from police.
Using the police to save these women and men from their bosses seems a little ironic.
Not all sex workers need or want help transitioning out of the profession. One sex worker told America Tonight that she could make $200 in 10 or 15 minutes in her line of work — more than 25 times what someone working for minimum wage would make in an hour.
For these women and men, sex work can be their most profitable and accessible job choice, and a transition to a new career could mean a transition into poverty.
This is not the way it should be, but using the police to bully vulnerable people into lower-paying jobs just because prostitution “shouldn’t” be the best option diverts attention from the real, institutional problems that make it so. If we’re going to focus on “shouldn’ts,” you shouldn’t have to be arrested to have access to those housing and employment services. You shouldn’t have to quit your job to qualify for psychological counseling. You shouldn’t be denied a lawyer in the pursuit of justice.
And, perhaps most importantly, johns shouldn’t be released on bail while judges have no choice but to lock up the men and women they were attempting to purchase sex from.
Jacqui Oesterblad is a junior studying political science and Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Follow her @joesterblad.