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May 09, 2017

In Bid to Close Rikers Island, NYC Panel Suggests Decriminalizing Prostitution

NEW YORK CITY—It's about 2,500 miles from Los Angeles to New York City "as the crow files," so West Coasters don't generally hear a lot of news about the internal fights that city faces—most notably, Mayor Bill de Blasio's and the New York City Council's attempts to close its most notorious penal facility, Rikers Island. To that end, de Blasio and City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito last year created the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which released its final report on April 7, and among its recommendations was that, in order to relieve overcrowding in the facility as city officials work to close it, prostitution, which is currently a criminal offense in the city, be downgraded to a civil offense, and practitioners be issued summonses similar to parking tickets rather than face jail time for practicing their trade. The massive (167 page) report covers nearly all aspects of the city's judicial system, from what types of offenses are most prevalent to what types of prisoners are incarcerated—turns out that although the city's ethnic population of blacks and Hispanics is 55 percent, those groups together account for 90 percent of the jail population—to how district attorneys decide which cases to prosecute to how long people spend in prison awaiting trial. But with Rikers housing roughly 10,000 inmates at any given time, many there awaiting bail on minor offenses or trial on both major and minor offenses, the Commission had one recommendation that would help decrease that number. "The Commission recommends removing a select few low-level offenses entirely from criminal scrutiny and allowing them to be handled in the civil summons system," the report states on page 39. "The goal of this recommendation is to hold individuals accountable, but through a non-criminal process that would eliminate the collateral consequences of an arrest, conviction, or jail time. The Commission recommends that legislators in Albany consider reclassifying four charges as civil, and not criminal, matters: theft of services (using public transportation without paying the fare), low-level possession of marijuana in public view, prostitution, and possession of 'gravity knives' (knives that open by force of gravity and that are often used legitimately by those in construction or building maintenance)." Common sense, right? "The modern thinking on this is that the defendants in prostitution cases, whether it’s around the world or around the corner, are victims," said Commission chairman and former state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman at a news conference as the report was released. Just one problem: Regarding eliminating the crime of prostitution, de Blasio is opposed. "While we appreciate the intent of the commission, these actions would generally have little impact on the jail population and, in some cases, could actually jeopardize public safety and are therefore not supported by the administration," de Blasio spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas told the New York Post. Not everyone agrees with that analysis. "Whether you believe that no woman would freely choose prostitution over the kind of dehumanization that low-wage work can bring, or if you believe that prostitution is simply a trade like any other, victims of trafficking are victims who do not deserve to be made into criminals," argued Linda Tirado in an article on The Daily Beast. "The impact of criminalization on the public goes well beyond the damage to the people who find themselves working in the sex trade, whether they are trafficked or there of their own free will. The arrest, detention, and charging of women for what amounts to a moral sin—if a sin indeed it is—is costing the country millions of dollars that we simply can’t afford." The Commission's report has been forwarded to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as well as the members of the legislature in Albany, but whether the lawmakers will take its recommendations to heart is unknown—and while they're considering it, hundreds if not thousands of women will spend time, undeservedly, in that hellhole known as Rikers Island.

 
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