A controversial bill to repeal a provision of California law that prohibits loitering with the intent to sell sex is on its way to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, nine months after it passed the Legislature and deeply divided Democrats, sex workers and trafficking survivors along the way.
Senate Bill 357 would rescind the misdemeanor law against loitering in public for the purpose to engage in prostitution. Advocates for the measure argued that law enforcement uses California’s loitering rules to disproportionately target Black, brown and transgender Californians, and that the practice leads to unsafe conditions for workers. They also contend that loitering arrests make it difficult for people to find housing and jobs due to criminal records, and that police use subjective criteria when pursuing an arrest, such as the type of clothing or makeup a person wears.
Opponents said SB 357 would remove a critical tool to stop sex trafficking, especially of children, and will hamstring victim outreach efforts.
The measure passed the Legislature in September, but state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) delayed sending it to Newsom until Monday. He wanted to buy time to address arguments against the bill and make the case for why he thinks Newsom should sign it. Wiener also decided to wait until Pride Month, at a time when many in the community — especially transgender women — have increased protests against anti-LGBTQ laws in other states.
Newsom now has 12 days to sign or veto the bill, or allow it to become law without his signature. Newsom’s office declined to comment on his pending decision.
“This Pride Month, as we see a surge in violence against and harassment of the LGBTQ community, it is more important than ever to get rid of a law that targets our community,” Wiener said in a statement. “Pride isn’t just about rainbow flags and parades. It’s about protecting the most marginalized in our community.”
But support for the bill, even among Democrats, was never unanimous. Some members of the more moderate wing of the Democratic caucus joined Republicans in either voting against the bill or withholding their vote. While the Senate approved SB 357 with several votes to spare, the bill passed the Assembly with only one more vote than necessary for approval.
One of the main concerns raised during legislative debates was whether the measure would prevent law enforcement from being able to protect sex trafficking victims.
In a statement to the state Senate, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said the section of California’s penal code that SB 357 would eliminate is used to “target sex buyers who seek to exploit.”
“While the intent of this legislation is to protect the prosecution of a vulnerable community, the unintended consequences will be to benefit the sex buyers as well,” the department wrote.
Vanessa Russell, founder of Love Never Fails, a Bay Area organization that works with trafficking survivors, shares similar concerns. Russell said that the bill is a first step toward full legalization of prostitution, and rejected the idea that decriminalizing loitering would make conditions safer for women.
“Removing the police is not going to reduce harm. It’s going to create more harm because you haven’t [held] the buyers and exploiters accountable, so you are going to increase demand,” she said.
Russell proposed a legislative blueprint called Pathways to Safety, which calls for policy solutions to prevent sex trafficking and provide victims with resources for recovery. She said lawmakers should use those recommendations to assist women looking to exit sex work and victims who were trafficked into it. That should include mental health and housing services, along with job training opportunities, she said.
Russell also wants to see the development of a mandatory diversion program for people who buy sex and pimps to learn “the consequences of what they’re doing.” Participants would have to pay for the program themselves, and the money would go to victims.
Sending SB 357 marks the near-end to a yearlong battle over how to address a part of California law that has divided advocates across the spectrum. The nine-month delay reflects how emotionally intense the topic often became in the Legislature, and gave the opportunity for all sides to lobby the governor’s office.
Tony Hoang, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California, said the legislation repeals a law that “has been used to target, harass and arrest transgender and gender-nonconforming people simply for existing in public spaces.” Equality California is a co-sponsor of SB 357, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of California and other civil rights groups.
“We all deserve to live in public peacefully without fear of arrest,” Hoang said. “California has the opportunity to boldly stand on the side of justice and improve public safety.”