For several years, the GHJP has worked closely with the Sex Workers Project (SWP) of the Urban Justice Center to understand the ways in which criminalization impacts the lives of people in the sex sector and to explore potential strategies for changing harmful laws and policies in the US. The project has evolved in its focus and scope concomitant with our investigations and engagement with key actors, including sex workers, AIDS advocacy and service organizations, people of color and criminal justice organizations, LGBT and trans-specific advocates and public health and legal researchers and advocates.  The work with the SWP has been in tight synergy with GHJP’s global work on sex workers’ health and rights: although every country has seen historically-specific evolutions of its prostitution laws and other criminal laws regulating sexuality, the trans-national flow of ideologies, bodies, and funding (particularly for HIV/AIDS), among other factors, closely ties the US law and policy on sex work and now “trafficking” to the global context.

At its inception in 2014, the project focused on the intersection of laws that criminalize prostitution and laws that criminalize HIV exposure or transmission and the fact that the overlap—or specific combination—of these laws creates a double threat of prosecution for sex workers in the United States, with almost no provision of meaningful counseling, education, or social services pursuant to these laws. Notably, our research revealed constant, yet unpredictable and locally-driven distortions of policing, prosecution, and judicial practices — such as, de facto detention until HIV testing could be carried out, coercive plea bargaining, and involuntary public exposures of HIV status, sometimes coupled with ad hoc judicial work-arounds to avoid these problems without confronting the law itself.

In response to the students’ findings and analysis (through desk research, visits, observations and in-person interviews with key stakeholders), first nationally and then in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2015 the project evolved into its second phase, a focus on “prostitution diversion programs” (PDPs) - emerging local responses to the frustrations of policing street level sex trades. Conversations with public health, HIV/AIDS, LGBT, anti-racism, anti-incarceration, and civil rights advocates who had been following the municipal debates around prostitution and related arrests with concomitant failures in legal and social service regimes eventually led us to a new clinic project in 2016 to carry out a national mapping and examination of the different histories, models, and possible impacts of these new ‘go to’ responses to street level offenses, allegedly modeled on harm reduction and drug courts and claiming an evidence base for policies.

With the support of the Levi Strauss Foundation, The GHJP was also able to send interns to the SWP in the summers of 2015 and 2016 and to Atlanta to continue our collaboration with local partners and related research efforts, including a focus on NY state’s “Human Trafficking Intervention Courts” (HTICs) and Safe-Harbor Laws for under 18s arrested for prostitution offenses (read more about these internship experiences here).

In fall 2018, our initial findings were released in two inter-related reports on prostitution “diversion” programs and their impacts on the rights, health and dignity of people who trade sex in the U.S. Diversion from Justice is national in scope and offers an initial taxonomy and justice-informed evaluation framework for PDPs across the United States, while Un-Meetable Promises is a deep-dive investigation into the policies and practices of a PDP in a single setting (in this case, NYC’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts).

The reports suggest that PDPs arise from mixed narratives of rescue and harm-reduction, in which all sex sector activities become conflated with a reductive and inaccurate “trafficking” narrative. Moreover, the programs are generally incoherent in their purpose and claims, opaque in their data collection, and under-resourced and insufficiently integrated (and thus relatively unaccountable) with very mixed outcomes: some affected populations appreciate the less punitive approach and offers of support, while others feel there is no real commitment to their rights or health and that the services offered do not match their actual desires and structural needs. While PDPs claim to provide alternatives to traditional criminal justice processes by moving defendants into ostensibly rehabilitative social services, the reports suggest that the programs are unable to fulfill their promises and are instead expanding the coercive reach of penal institutions by enabling them to act as gatekeepers of social services.

While the reports make clear that genuine movement forward requires the complete decriminalization of sex work and reinvestment of resources in systems led by affected communities, they also propose incremental steps that can be taken to mitigate immediate harms to sex workers caught in PDPs and cycles of criminalization. We hope these reports stimulate greater public discussion and accountability as well as advocacy at local, state, and national levels by sex worker advocacy organizations, health and harm reduction coalitions, and allies who seek to ensure that diversion processes overall serve justice and health more consistently.

The research for the reports and the collaboration between GHJP and SWP was supported by a generous grant from the Levi Strauss Foundation. Moreover, this work is an initiative of the Gruber Project for Global Justice and Women’s Rights.
 

Letter in Support of Amnesty International and the Decriminalization of Sex Work

A team of scholars and students supported by GHJP drafted this sign-on letter in support of Amnesty International's (AI) movement towards the decriminalization of sex work. We write to support informed debate and discussion at the upcoming AI International Council Meeting: as further elaborated in the letter, we believe not only that it is most consistent with human rights principles and practices to decriminalize sex work (allowing for both selling and buying of sexual activity)  as proposed in the AI resolution, but that evidence and careful analysis of the research on both sex work and trafficking supports this conclusion.

 

Publications


Global Health Justice Partnership, Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center, "Diversion from Justice: A Rights-Based Analysis of Local ‘Prostitution Diversion Programs’ and their Impacts on People in the Sex Sector in the United States" (September 2018) (available here)

Global Health Justice Partnership, Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center, "Un-Meetable Promises: Rhetoric and Reality in New York City’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts" (September 2018) (available here)