Street Sweeping

Bloomberg Plan Sends Prostitutes Cycling From City Jails to Local Corners

But David Kapner, supervising attorney for Manhattan arraignments at the Legal Aid Society, says the report's claims of police harassment and false arrests are consistent with what he hears from clients. "Police don't wait around at Macy's for certain shoplifters to come. When Macy's calls, they come. The same thing with drugs. They don't always go out and look for them." With prostitutes, however, it's easy to make arrests and up the numbers. "If there are a bunch of prostitutes hanging around on a street corner, back up the paddy wagon and throw them in. Pick them up and worry about the facts later," he says. "It's not some big conspiracy, it's just that they figure no one cares, and they're right. No one cares. Nobody's going to call them on it."

If arrests are down for prostitutes, advocates haven't noticed. Nalepka says that when he heads to Brooklyn, "if all goes true to form, we'll see people who've just gotten out of prison, and we probably won't see the same people we saw the last week—because now they're in prison."

Getachew says arrests have intensified in the West Village over the past year, especially among the transgendered. Many of the queer kids are doing sex work, "survival sex," she calls it, but she's seen them get busted while eating noodles. "A lot of the arrests around sex work have gender politics behind them," she says, "because we live in a transphobic, homophobic community." Charlotte, a transgender woman interviewed for "Revolving Door," told researchers, "I got arrested for prostitution long before I knew what prostitution was."

illustration: Kana Philip

The city does not break down arrest statistics by race, sexual orientation, or gender identity, but the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University found that black and Hispanic women made up 85 percent of all women arrested in New York City in 2001, and for the first time surpassed the number of white men arrested. "I don't think it's by chance that it's poor women of color who are being denied access to certain entitlements and resources," says Sophia Zamudio-Haas. "Poor women of color are being targeted as sexual criminals."

Feinblatt defends the city's policies. "Ask any resident of any neighborhood that's a prostitution location about whether they think it's good to try to sleep at night and be woken up by prostitutes at four in the morning, or take their kids to school in the morning and walk over condoms, and I think you'll hear that prostitution is not a victimless crime. . . . Neighborhoods are actually hurt by prostitution." The court system, he says, is a "gateway to help for those who want it."

Advocates disagree. Only half of those interviewed for "Revolving Door" had been offered any "mandated services" like drug treatment, and only one had been offered anything in-depth or long-term—and only then in exchange for a guilty plea. "People come out of jail addicted to shit they weren't addicted to before, legal and illegal," says Getachew. "Prison is not a gateway. It's a place that's there to numb people mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually." Jail time even nixes eligibility for Section 8 housing subsidies, one of the best ways to get off the street, according to advocates.

Says Thukral: "The city's initiatives don't create a long-term solution. They don't even create a short-term solution. It gets headlines, makes people think that the city is actually doing something by making these arrests. . . . You can get people off the street, but the question is where do they go?"

"Revolving Door" examines prostitution as work rather than crime—a morally unsettling but nonviolent response to poverty and addiction—and asks the city to revamp its criminal-justice priorities accordingly. In the meantime, it argues, treat sex workers more like human beings than like trash (trash apparently so vile it requires pickup every day). If the city genuinely wants to move people off the street, the report's authors say, we should support community-based organizations instead of pumping funds toward law enforcement, which is doing more harm than good, and, if nothing else, is a shameful waste of resources. Prison alone costs taxpayers $175 per day, $64,000 per year, per person, for a crime that earns its perpetrators as little as $20.

"This is the underclass," says Nalepka. "They keep spending their lives in prison. That's how we as a society are choosing to house them and deal with them. We're saying consciously or not consciously that we want to spend our money on prisons."

*Names of sex workers have been changed.

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