Prostitution sting arrest
Sheriff’s deputies arrest a man during the prostitution sting. File photo ourtesy San Diego County District Attorney

The pimps in California thought Senate Bill 357 was going to legalize prostitution in the state.

“That was their perception” said Stephany Powell, director of law enforcement training at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation in Washington.

She claims passage of the controversial legislation, even before the governor’s signature, has led to an increase in pimping and pandering on the streets of California.

The numbers have doubled, Powell said, “not only in terms of the girls walking the streets for the purposes of prostitution, but also the sex buyers that were circling the blocks. Because remember, when the bill passed, it also said that if you are a sex buyer, and you are loitering in an area for prostitution, that’s legal too.”

The legislation, which went into effect in January, didn’t legalize prostitution as rumored on the streets. It just repealed misdemeanor loitering laws targeting prostitution, prohibiting police from citing people suspected of soliciting sex based purely on appearance. 

With loitering no longer a crime, officers on the street can no longer investigate a person who is loitering, even if they suspect someone of being exploited or being under age.

And that is a problem, said Powell, a former Los Angeles police officer of 30 years before becoming a supervisor fighting human trafficking on the streets of Los Angeles.

“The people that the bill was trying to protect, it has not protected them. It’s made it worse,” she said. “They said that it keeps people of color, transgender community, LGBT, LGBTQ community, from being harassed and arrested unnecessarily.” 

Another critic of the legislation, Greg Burt of the California Family Council, said that “since SB 357 passed, we’ve had an explosion of street trafficking, the most dangerous type of prostitution. Demand is going through the roof.”

He has been involved in organizing efforts by dozens of organizations across the state involved in fighting trafficking and supporting the victims of the crime. They were part of the effort to try to kill the original legislation but failed.  

Opposing them is a major player in anti-trafficking efforts in Los Angeles and elsewhere –the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, or CAST.

 SB 357 is considered by proponents and opponents as a possible forerunner to legalizing prostitution in California. “I buy into the belief that this was the first step with the end result of wanting to have full decriminalization of prostitution,” said Powers. Burt adds there is “a lot of money out there to advocate for legalization by professional lobbyists.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill after some delay, pushed by its author, Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco. Weiner argued that laws are used to harass marginalized people, and the bill’s passage would lead to less discrimination from police, protecting the LGBTQ and transgender community. It was sold as the “Safer Streets For All Act” by Wiener, as well as his supporters, including the ACLU, sex workers and CAST.

Weiner’s office acknowledged they received Times of San Diego’s request regarding the alleged unintended consequences of his legislation. So far they have not responded.

However, in the runup to the bill’s passage, Weiners office argued that “most criminal penalties for sex workers, loitering laws included, do nothing to stop sex crimes against sex workers and human trafficking. In fact, loitering laws make it harder to identify trafficking victims; trafficking victims are often afraid to come forward in fear of being arrested or incarcerated.”

Powell counters “the point they’re missing is that, unfortunately, what they also did was provide an environment for sex buyers and pimps, to be able to work,”

The “empty the prisons” movement also played a role in the bill’s passage. Years of efforts to remake the state’s penal code in favor of treatment and rehabilitation as opposed to long prison sentences is suspected as the motivation behind the decision of many Democrats to support the legislation. 

The perception by many is that the state’s criminal justice system is racist “from top to bottom,” said Burt. “There is a dynamic going on where they don’t want to pass any laws that would increase the number of Black men that are incarcerated” and support legislation to reduce the numbers.

Powell adds, “It’s not just Black men, who are the pimps, you have Hispanic men, you have White men that are pimps as well. Unfortunately, when you look at the numbers, it’s overwhelmingly, Black men. So I think we have to be careful not to over-police.”

The irony, said Burt, is “you’re sacrificing black and brown women because you think the police departments racist.”

For police agencies dealing with street prostitution, longer term undercover operations are now the only method that is effective to combat street prostitution and the trafficking that comes with it. In order for an officer to arrest on a misdemeanor, it has to be committed in their presence. That’s why vice works undercover. 

But only jurisdictions with large vice units can afford stripping manpower from other jobs the police are required to do. Powell describes the thinking of police chiefs across the state experiencing staffing problems as “I don’t have enough officers to work patrol. So it’s easier for me to disband this vice unit and have them work patrol, especially in light of taking away something like the loitering issue.”

Efforts to repeal the legislation or create a workaround involve two powerful political figures from San Diego. On the Senate side, minority leader Brian Jones offered an amendment to repeal SB 357. It was killed by Senate Democrats 29-8, tabling the effort to repeal the act.

At the Assembly level, Democrat David Alvarez has proposed Assembly Bill 1602, which uses the existing disorderly conduct law and expands it. The law would add as a crime “the attempt to engage in the crime of soliciting prostitution, the attempt to agree to engage in prostitution, or the attempt to engage in prostitution. Currently this bill sits in the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, which requires action before month’s end or the bill is dead for this session.

Burt said Alvarez’ bill has the potential of giving police the ability to once again question pimps and prostitutes about their activities. And Powers said that is especially important because while “not everybody in prostitution is a victim of human trafficking…human trafficking victims are within the prostitution system.”