Legislature votes to repeal law against loitering for purpose of prostitution
ALBANY — The Legislature has approved a bill to remove the crime of loitering for the purposes of prostitution from the books, indicating that a left-leaning criminal justice reform agenda is alive and well after an election season widely characterized as a referendum on new Democratic energy on reform issues.
Reform advocates have spent several years trying to brand the existing law as a “walking while trans” ban. They’ve estimated that up to 75 percent of those arrested under the statute are transgender, and a similarly disproportionate number are Black or Latino.
On Tuesday, Assemblymember Amy Paulin (D-Westchester) dubbed it a “female stop-and-frisk.”
“When I was much younger than I am now, I was standing on a corner in White Plains waiting for a friend to pick me up … Two cars passed by soliciting me, and then the third was a cop car — the police officer said ‘what are you doing standing on this corner?’” said Paulin, who sponsored the bill with Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan). “I do know what it feels like with the assumption being that somehow a young woman standing there with a skirt above her knees, which was the fashion at the time, might warrant getting arrested … It’s not a very good feeling.”
She did not get arrested in that case, but raised the possibility of a similar encounter in Queens: “What if I’m in Jamaica and I’m beckoning to my husband, I’m beckoning to my friend, but because I’m Black or I’m transgender and I’m standing in Jamaica, I could get arrested for prostitution for doing that same behavior.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill Tuesday evening.
A week ago, Republicans seemed primed to have this issue added to their list of evidence as they argue that Democrats are weak on crime. Several tried to redub it “Spitzer’s Law,” saying it was evidence that the majority was poised to embrace a full-on legalization of prostitution — a proposal that’s gained some support in recent years, but is still nowhere near imminent passage. (The Republican effort, of course, referred to the scandal that led to Eliot Spitzer’s resignation as governor in 2008.)
But the wind seemed to be taken out of the opposition on Friday, when the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York — often the most vocal critic of some of the criminal justice bills the Legislature has approved in recent years — came out in support, saying that the existing law has led to “harassment and unjust arrests.”
Some Republicans wound up voting yes. And only a handful actually spoke against it.
“There’s no doubt that this language has been used and abused,” said Assemblymember Andy Goodell (R-Jamestown), but “prostitution is not a great occupation … We have people who are acquitted of murder — we don’t legalize murder! Yet here we are saying ‘we have people arrested under the statute wrongly, let’s eliminate the statute.’”
The law which the Legislature voted to repeal on Tuesday was passed in the spring of 1976, four months after the release of Taxi Driver. The visibility of prostitution in Manhattan had become a major quality of life concern, one that became more pressing as lawmakers hoped to clean up the streets before the Democratic National Convention came to Madison Square Garden that summer.
Two Democrats generally known for working with civil libertarians at that time — Senate Minority Leader Manfred Ohrenstein and Sen. Carl McCall — pushed the bill through. Only a couple of dozen legislators opposed the measure, a group that included a disproportionate number of relatively young Democrats with names like Hevesi, Hinchey, Farrell, Koppell, Grannis, Weprin, and a 25-year-old freshman named Schumer.