SACREMENTO. California lawmakers on Monday finally sent Gov. Gavin Newsom a hot potato of a bill to stop police from making arrests on prostitution charges, nine months after the bill was passed by the Legislature.
Democratic Senator Scott Wiener and other supporters have said that arrests for loitering with intent to engage in prostitution are often based on police perceptions and are disproportionately targeted at transgender, black, and Hispanic women.
Critics see this as a further easing of criminal penalties that tie the hands of the police in quality-of-life issues such as shoplifting and car theft. Greg Burt, spokesman for the California Family Council, and other opponents fear this is part of a possible effort to decriminalize prostitution.
“This bill seems perfect if you want the sex trade to even increase in California,” he said. “This bill will really affect the poor areas – it will not affect the areas where these legislators live.”
The bill does not decriminalize extortion or participation in sex work. This will allow those who have previously been convicted or are currently serving a sentence of loitering to ask the court to revoke and seal the record of conviction.
The measure was passed by both legislative houses, but Viner took the unusual step of keeping the bill out of Newsom after the Assembly passed the measure in September without an extra vote. More than two dozen of his fellow Democrats in the Assembly and Senate either voted no or refused to vote.
Wiener said at the time that he needed time “to make the case for why this civil rights bill is good policy … and why this discriminatory loitering is against California values.”
The Senate finally sent the bill to Newsom on Monday.
But in the nine months since lawmakers acted, worries about crime, homelessness and the perception that California’s major cities are becoming increasingly unsafe have escalated, fueling political campaigns ahead of the November election.
Among the bill’s supporters is San Francisco District Attorney Cheza Boudin, who was just removed from office mid-term by voters after critics launched a campaign calling him soft on criminals.
Newsom, a Democrat who is running for re-election after he easily fought off a recall last year, said more needs to be done to address homelessness and shoplifting. Newsom’s representatives did not immediately comment on Wiener’s bill.
Burt believes lawmakers waited to send him to Newsom until the governor defeated the recall and got through the June 7 primary.
The bill is sponsored in part by gay and transgender rights groups, and Wiener said he waited to send the measure to Newsom before Pride Month, which the LGTBQ community celebrates.
“Now more than ever it’s important to get rid of the law against our community,” Gay Wiener said. “Pride is not just rainbow flags and parades. It’s about protecting the most marginalized in our community.”
Opponents include the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the nation’s largest agency of its kind, and the California Peace Officers Research Association, which has 75,000 members. Both say its repeal would hinder the prosecution of those who commit crimes related to prostitution and human trafficking and make it more difficult to identify and help victims.
In a statement to lawmakers, the sheriff’s department said the law is “often used to keep prostitutes from loitering in public places, business and residential areas, which can lead to crime and drug use.”
While the intention is good, the unintended consequences will be in favor of sex buyers, the department said.
But Wiener said the loafer law “essentially allows law enforcement to harass and arrest people if they’re wearing tight clothes or a lot of makeup.” A similar law became law in New York last year, and Wiener introduced his bill as part of a broader movement to end discrimination and violence against sex workers.
The debate divided sex workers and advocates, with the American Civil Liberties Union of California supporting them, while the non-partisan National Center for Sexual Exploitation opposed them.
Once the document officially reaches his desk, Newsom will have 12 days to sign or veto the bill.
Two other related measures are already law.
In 2016, a law was passed to prohibit the arrest of minors for prostitution with the intention of treating them as victims instead. A 2019 bill prohibits sex workers from being arrested if they report various crimes as victims or witnesses. The same law prohibits the use of condoms as a reason for arrest.