Seattle City Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Tammy Morales have proposed bills to repeal the City’s prostitution loitering and drug traffic loitering ordinances last week. Councilmember Alex Pederson joined them in co-sponsoring the prostitution loitering repeal bill, but not the drug traffic one. Then this week, a press release was posted on the City Council website which states that these anti-loitering laws are “outdated” and that Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes is now on board with the repeal bills.
Prostitution and drug loitering laws have been used to profile Black, indigenous and people of color. In North Seattle especially, prostitution loitering law has been used by the Seattle Police Department to stop and harass young women of color who are walking down the street. The SPD would have to conduct a sting or catch someone in the act in order to go after prostitution, but anyone can be “suspected” of prostitution loitering without any specific evidence, which results in harassment, background checks, (often illegal) search of one’s belongings, and arrests not usually for prostitution or prostitution loitering but from active warrants or some other charges.
City’s own Reentry Workgroup made a recommendation to repeal prostitution and drug loitering laws when it released its final report in October 2018. The workgroup pointed out “disastrous racialized impact” of these policies, and how criminalizing prostitution “exacerbate[s] any underlying needs” of people in the sex trade, exposing them to “further physical and sexual harm caused by incarceration.” The report also points out that prostitution loitering laws “disproportionately impact” “cisgender and transgender women of color,” and “many women who are participating in legal, routine activities are arrested […] and must be then be put in a position to testify against police and have their word be weighed against a law enforcement officer.”
Immediately after the Reentry Workgroup report was made public, we along with many other sex worker activists and advocates met with Holmes’ staff, City Councilmembers, and other officials to demand that the City follow the Workgroup’s recommendations, but they were slow to act on it due to resistance from the police and prosecutors. It now appears that prostitution and drug loitering laws suddenly became “outdated” to our City leaders over the past two weeks–a clear sign that an era has shifted thanks to the ongoing nationwide uprising for Black lives and against racist criminal justice system.
The City has not published its agenda for the next Council meeting, but it is likely that it will come up for discussion during its regular meeting on Monday, June 22nd. Please contact us to join our email list to be notified of an opportunity to testify in support of the bill.
We welcome Holmes’ come-around on this issue, but we continue to demand that prostitution law itself (12A.10.020) repealed. After all, Reentry Workgroup’s statement about harms of anti-prostitution laws applies not just to the prostitution loitering law but also to the criminalization of prostitution in general. Since 2012, Holmes has claimed that the City was pursuing charges against buyers of sex instead of “those caught up” in the sex trade, but arrests of mostly young women of color have spiked last summer, which was condemned by all leading anti-violence organizations in Washington State as a form of “gender-based violence.”
In addition, Seattle and King County need to end SOAP (Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution) and SODA (Stay Out of Drug Areas) orders that function the same way as the loitering laws (racial profiling, overpolicing). SOAP and SODA are large swaths of neighborhoods in Seattle and King County that a judge can exclude someone from. Many cities in King County have them including Seattle, even though it’s not codified in the Seattle Municipal Code.
Like prostitution and drug traffic loitering laws, SOAP/SODA are being used to stop people of color for suspicion that they are where they are not supposed to be. Even if someone hasn’t actually been issued SOAP/SODA orders, they can be stopped, harassed, background checked, and searched. In other words: repealing prostitution and drug traffic loitering laws won’t stop the racial profiling and harassment of communities of color because the same exact thing can go on under the guise of SOAP/SODA enforcement. We need to end them all.
We also support other criminal justice reform initiatives, including Defund the Seattle Police Department and upcoming campaign to decriminalize personal possession of all drugs modeled after Oregon’s Initiatve Petition 44.