Reports on Prostitution “Diversion” Programs

A cover for the working paper titled, "Diversion from Justice."

In 2018, GHJP and SWP released 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: NYC’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts.

These inter-related reports contain the initial findings of a national mapping and

examination of the different histories, models, and possible impacts of “prostitution diversion programs” (PDPs), as a ‘go to’ responses to street level offenses, allegedly modeled on harm reduction and drug courts and claiming an evidence base for policies. This work developed out of research examining the double threat of prosecution for sex workers in the United States through the intersection of laws that criminalize prostitution and laws that criminalize HIV exposure or transmission, and 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.

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.

These reports were developed through clinic projects, and student summer internships at the SWP and in Atlanta to continue our collaboration with local partners and related research efforts. This work is an initiative of the Gruber Project for Global Justice and Women’s Rights, and the research for the reports and the collaboration between GHJP and SWP was supported by a generous grant from the Levi Strauss Foundation.