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New York bill would decriminalize people in prostitution, punish pimps and buyers

New York state lawmakers are considering legislation that would seek to protect survivors of sex trafficking while punishing the people who exploit them.

The Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act, introduced by Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, with input from survivors and their advocates, would decriminalize prostitution in New York while holding pimps, sex traffickers and buyers accountable. Sex trade survivors, who experts say are often preyed on as children, would have any prostitution and loitering charges expunged from their criminal records, removing obstacles to employment or other opportunities enabling them to have a fresh start.

New York would be the first U.S. state to pass "Equality Model" legislation that protects survivors of sex trafficking. Advocates of the measure say most people who enter the trade, many of whom are minorities, immigrants or LGBTQ+, were forced into such illegal activities when they were young, marginalized and lacking in economic opportunities.  

"What's clear to me is that my role in government is to make sure that we are championing those in the greatest need with the least power, and protecting those who are being exploited by systems that are taking advantage of their marginalization in our society," Sen. Krueger said in a press conference on Monday. 

People who are drawn into prostitution, sex trading and human trafficking "are disproportionately young people of color who got trapped into this situation either by physical or mental force, or for the economic reality that they had nowhere else to turn. That is unacceptable," she added. 

Offering resources is key

The bill, which is based on the so-called "Nordic model" of prostitution legislation, would also expand access to various services and resources, including mental health counseling, educational opportunities, housing services and economic empowerment tools for people in prostitution. 

Melanie Thompson, who said she was first trafficked as a 12-year-old and survived eight years in the sex trade, said the bill's move to offer help is key.

"Aftercare services are essential to truly ending the sex trade to ensure individuals who exit to not relapse because of the same lack of resources that made them targets in the first place," she said during Monday's press conference. 

Melanie Thompson says mental health services and educational and professional opportunities are key to helping people exit the sex trade.  Screenshot

Thompson, a college student and advocate for other survivors, told CBS MoneyWatch the bill could be instrumental in shrinking the illicit sex trade. 

"It not only focuses on holding accountable sex buyers, but also focuses on rectifying the same lack of resources that caused us to be survivors in the first place," she said.  

Cristian Eduardo, also a sex trafficking survivor and advocate, said the legislation gives people like him a voice and refutes the assumption that individuals voluntarily sell their bodies. 

"When we see people engage in prostitution, we assume they are there by choice. We don't ask how they became engaged in sex trafficking or understand that they engaged in the trade as minors and suddenly when they turn 18 they aren't victims of trafficking anymore," he told CBS MoneyWatch. 

"The sex trade doesn't exist because people are willing to sell their bodies — it's fueled by male entitlement, and there is such an imbalance of power," Eduardo added. 

Reining in exploitation

Alexi Ashe Meyers, an attorney at Sanctuary for Families who helped author the bill and co-chair of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition, stressed how important it is to protect survivors while also holding those fueling the sex trade accountable. 

"Equality model legislation addresses the need for survivors of the sex trade to be decriminalized, but also receive exit strategies and services such as legal, medical, mental health and housing. The legislation is a holistic approach to address the sex trade,"  she told CBS MoneyWatch. "It expands access to these services, vacates and expunges past convictions, and continues to hold bad actors responsible."

The legislation also closes a loophole that shields sex buyers from charges of promoting prostitution when they traffic people to themselves. Purchasers of sex would not be jailed, but fined based on their incomes. A portion of the fines would be funneled toward a victim-compensation fund.  

Not full decriminalization

The Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act contrasts with other legislation that would completely decriminalize prostitution. The Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, introduced in in New York in 2019 by Sen. Julia Salazar and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, would shield both sex sellers and buyers from arrest. 

Backers of so-called equality model bills like Krueger's say the latter bill protects exploiters and allows the sex trade to flourish. Meanwhile, critics of equality model legislation argue that it would push the industry further underground and expose people in prostitution to more violence.  

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