California is once again making headlines, with a new law aimed at decriminalizing loitering with intent to work as a prostitute.

The reason for the bill? Current law unfairly targets minorities, say the bill’s supporters. Proponents say that minorities and transgender people are disproportionately targeted for enforcement of current loitering laws because of how they are dressed.

Opponents of the bill, however, point out that this may hurt the ability of law enforcement to intervene and help sex trafficking victims.

The controversial bill went through the California Assembly with fierce debate before passing 41-26, with more moderate Democrats siding with Republicans against the bill. The bill is currently being held at the California Senate desk, before being sent to the governor in January (whoever that may be, given the efforts to recall incumbent Governor Gavin Newsom).

Catie Stewart, spokeswoman for State Sen. Scott Wiener, the bill’s author, explained the delay to the Sacramento Bee:

“Holding the bill at the Senate desk is simply a temporary delay. It provides the senator and our coalition more time to make the case about why this civil rights bill is good policy that should be signed into law and why this discriminatory loitering crime goes against California values and needs to be repealed.”

“[arresting people who] look like sex workers is discriminatory and wrong, and it endangers sex workers and trans people of color. Anti-LGTBQ and racist loitering laws need to go. Sex workers, LGBTQ people, and people of color deserve to be safe on our streets.”

 

The bill also allows those who have a prior conviction for loitering with intent to work as a prostitute to have those convictions overturned, and the record of the case sealed. Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, a Democrat, said during debate the reason for this was that current law was allegedly “criminalizing the victims and leaving them with criminal records that create further barriers to seeking employment, housing and relief,”

Not all Democrats agreed, however.

“The part about it is those young girls out there. What do we do then, how do we deal with that?” asked Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a Democrat.

“For me, when the unintended consequence is making it more difficult to protect victims of child trafficking, even if it’s just a possibility, that’s not something I can support,” said Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, also a democrat.

According to Stephany Powell of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, the new law could inadvertently aid sex traffickers, she warned the Sacramento Bee:

“It severely cripples law enforcement’s ability to arrest and prosecute human traffickers and sex buyers. If it’s repealed, sex buyers would have immunity. The assumption becomes that women who are marginalized want to do sex work and it almost becomes, ‘Well, since that’s what you are doing, we are just going to make it legal so you can do it.’ If we’re going to talk about things like systemic racism, then use this energy to fix the system where sex work does not have to be their only choice.”

The bill’s future could, of course, be in doubt if efforts to recall Newsom succeed, and replace him with a conservative Republican such as Larry Elder by the time the bill goes to the governor’s desk in January.

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