Thursday, June 13, 2013

Task force crafting prostitution ordinance debates punishment or treatment for sex workers

Posted By on Thu, Jun 13, 2013 at 1:19 PM

Task force members include activists, community leaders, advocates, and police officials
  • David Schick
  • Task force members include activists, community leaders, advocates, and police officials
Should sex workers caught by Atlanta Police be given a chance to escape prostitution with treatment, sentenced to jail time, or both?

That was one of the questions addressed by a task force that's trying to help city officials create "tools to fight prostitution" during its third monthly meeting earlier this week at City Hall.

The Working Group on Prostitution, or WGOP, was formed by Mayor Kasim Reed to craft an alternative ordinance aimed at curbing prostitution after a proposal that included "banishing" sex workers from certain parts of Atlanta was met with opposition from advocates and activists.

Roughly a dozen different community members and advocates from around the metro area presented other cities' best practices and their own ideas for reducing prostitution. There were no groups that specifically dealt with sex workers, but many claimed that more than half of the people they dealt with had engaged in prostitution.

Among the groups in attendance: the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, a nonprofit formed in 1994 to fight HIV/AIDS and which now offers a variety of health and wellness services; Women at the Well Transition Center, which assists women who've been affected by the criminal justice system to transition back into civilian life; and Women for Women program, a nonprofit that used to function within Georgia's correctional facilities and provided peer-counseling to female inmates.

Each community advocate had five minutes to present and two minutes to answer questions from WGOP members.

Kristin Canavan Wilson, who leads the city's Innovation Delivery Team and co-chairs the group, said the first two sessions were filled with data presentations to evaluate the current state of the prostitution. The last three meetings - including Monday night's - are aimed at narrowing down a set of proposals to bring to the mayor. The group's objective is solely to consider ideas. Funding sources will have to be determined later.

Most of the presenters, work group members, and public agreed that some sort of treatment - counseling, medication, behavioral therapy, and other proactive methods - was the most important factor in effectively addressing the problem. Disagreements arose, however, over whether or not "best practices" should include the mandatory criminal prosecution of offenders.

"Criminalizing folks is just another barrier to them moving forward in their lives," said Marshall Rancifer of the AHRC and WGOP group member. "For me, the starting point is offering these women a choice. Either let us help you, or go to jail. You can't put it more simple and plain than that."

Rancifer said he thinks what could most help sex workers would be to decriminalize prostitution.

"People are gonna do what they're gonna do for whatever reason they're gonna do it," added Mona Bennett of the AHRC.

Pastor Donna Hubbard, another WGOP group member, thinks that decriminalizing prostitution is an unrealistic expectation. The president of Women to the Well Transition Center, a former sex worker and drug addict, added that being arrested was a necessary step on her road to recovery.

Other frustrations arose during the work session from the transgendered community over the proper use of pronouns. Tracee McDaniel, WGOP member and director for Juxtaposed Center for Transformation, wanted to make sure that when talking about statistics regarding "who" was arrested that presenters at the meeting were as specific as possible.

"If we're going to address the issue of prostitution, it has to be prostitution, period," said Hubbard, adding that it doesn't matter what gender or race.

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