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City exempts prostitutes (and trafficking victims) from civil forfeiture–First step toward decriminalization?

Date: October 28, 2010

This Wednesday, Portland City Council passed an emergency proposal that modified civil forfeiture ordinance to dedicate funds and assets seized in prostitution-related crimes to pay for services for victims of trafficking (see OPB News). The change would allocate 75% of the funds for such services, while 25% go toward law enforcement’s anti-trafficking effort.

The move seems to be symbolic, as forfeiture from prostitution cases do not bring in that much money, although the City and the police refuse to give a specific figure. City Commissioner Dan Saltzman and the local media applaud that it would take away assets from pimps and halt their operation, even if just temporarily, but that is not likely, since pimps almost never get arrested at all (I understand that less than five such cases have been persecuted in the last several years).

But perhaps the most significant change in the ordinance is how it exempts “victims of trafficking” from having their assets forfeited. The new city code will read (with the changed portion in bold):

Conduct involving violation of solicitation to violate, attempt to violate or conspiracy to violate any provision of ORS 167 .002 to 167 .027, excluding 167.007(a) is hereby declared to be prohibited conduct, and any property that is used to commit or which is proceeds of the prohibited conduct is hereby declared to be subject to forfeiture, as limited by the provisions of 148.50.020.

What is ORS (Oregon Revised Statute) 167.007(a)? Here’s the full text of ORS 167.007:

167.007 Prostitution

(1) A person commits the crime of prostitution if:

(a) The person engages in or offers or agrees to engage in sexual conduct or sexual contact in return for a fee; or
(b) The person pays or offers or agrees to pay a fee to engage in sexual conduct or sexual contact.

(2) Prostitution is a Class A misdemeanor.

In other words, even though Commissioner Saltzman’s office explains that the change is intended to protect “trafficking victims” from civil forfeiture, the exemption applies equally to everyone who is targeted by 167.007(a)–that is, anyone charged with the crime of prostitution for engaging in or offering or agreeing to engage in sexual conduct or sexual contact in return for a fee.

I am generally concerned with the conflation of prostitution and trafficking (i.e. regarding all prostitutes as victims rather than people making difficult choices under difficult circumstances), as it leads to paternalistic interventions that diminish options for many women involved in prostitution rather than enhancing them, but this is a case in which the conflation actually benefits sex workers.

But why stop here? If the City believes that all prostitutes are victims and should not be penalised by having their assets forfeited, they certainly shouldn’t be penalised by being imprisoned, having children taken away, etc. Perhaps the new ordinance approved this week could be a first step toward decriminalizing 167.007(a) not necessarily because prostitution should be legal (we can agree to disagree there), but because it is not fair to punish women engaging in prostitution.

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