Activists Block Atlanta Prostitution Banishment Plan, Propose Alternatives (UPDATE 1)



(APN) ATLANTA — After opposition from progressive activists, Mayor Kasim Reed agreed to pull a proposal to banish prostitutes from certain parts of the City of Atlanta, known as the Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution (SOAP) ordinance.


Now, a work group of stakeholders including a contingent of activists, convened by the City of Atlanta, is holding meetings to discuss various alternatives to banishment that would address prostitution in Atlanta.


Activists were blindsided when the Public Safety/Legal Administration Cmte of the City Council of Atlanta passed the SOAP ordinance on January 29, 2013; they did not even know it was being considered.  Peggy Denby, President of the Midtown-Ponce Security Alliance, were one of three people who spoke at the PS/LA Cmte in support of the SOAP ordinance; no one spoke against.

“Our biggest problem has been prostitution… Those people have been coming to the same areas for thirty years; that is what they do.  That is why we have to banish them.  Otherwise we are not ever going to get them out.  We cannot arrest them out, we cannot run them out.  The only way to get rid of them, is to banish them,” Denby said.

“Prostitution, particularly the kind we have, is a huge quality of life issue in neighborhoods.  The two pockets–one of them is on Piedmont Ave, Myrtle St, and 3rd and 4th Street.  We just recently have increased the no cruising hours on those streets, but that still doesn’t solve the problem and is just a band-aid approach to the big problem,” Denby said.

“The prostitutes in this area in Piedmont, Myrtle, 3rd, 4th area are transvestites.  Transvestites are a particular type of prostitutes that are really quite dangerous… They are stronger, more aggressive, they–and this is from our eleven years of observation–they generally carry a knife on them somewhere.  We have in our possession, a machete that we found that one had stashed away,” Denby said.

“The other pocket is on the other side of Peachtree Street on Cypress Street and 7th and 8th  and over to West Peachtree.  And they are the young gay males and they work all night, every night as well.  The same situation goes on.  People at Peachtree Loafs, Echo restaurant, at the bar down at 6th Street,” Denby said.


However, after progressive activists made public comment against the proposal at the Full Council Meeting on February 04, 2013, the Council voted unanimously to send the SOAP ordinance back to Cmte.


Then, on February 25, 2013, the Administration requested to continue to hold the ordinance and to create the Working Group On Prostitution (WGOP), which recently changed its name to Working Group to Reduce Prostitution (WGRP).


The WGRP has had four meetings from April 2013 until now, once a month, to discuss what alternatives exist to banishment.  


The WGRP currently consists of fifteen members: Kristin Wilson, Innovation Delivery Team, City of Atlanta; Candace Byrd, Chief of Staff, City of Atlanta; Melissa Mullinax, Public Affairs/Office of COO, City of Atlanta; Amber Robinson, Law Department, City of Atlanta; Lt. Scott Kreher, Atlanta Police Department; Raines Carter, City Solicitor, Atlanta Municipal Court; Rosalie Joy, Public Defender, Atlanta Municipal Court; Stephanie Davis, Executive Director, Georgia Women for a Change; Denby; Xochitl Bervera, Director, Racial Justice Action Center (RJAC); Jeff Graham, Director, Georgia Equality; Tracee McDaniel, Director, Juxtaposed Center for Transformation; Pastor Donna Hubbard, Women at the Well Transition Center; former State Rep. Douglas Dean (D-Atlanta); and Bill Cannon, resident of the Booker T. Washington Community.


Terence McPhaul at YouthPride was originally named a workgroup member, but was replaced after ongoing concerns about a variety of management and board governance issues at YouthPride.


The July 12, 2013 WGRP meeting was to frame potential policies, proposals, and programs by the members and other groups.  


The SOAP ordinance was again sponsored by Alice Johnson representing the City of Atlanta and several members asked to evaluate this like Cannon, Carter, Denby, McDaniel, and Mullinax.


A second proposal suggested at the July meeting–to have John Photos placed on websites with names to publicly shame them and to assess John impound fees–was sponsored by Mullinax, with members like Bervera, Davis, and Dean wanting to evaluate this proposal.  


Carter sponsored a proposal for a John School, like one that exists in San Francisco, California, with Davis and Mullinax evaluating this proposal.  


An In-Jail program with aftercare treatment, counseling, and family acceptance services, and with County cooperation, was sponsored by Joy, with members Byrd, Cannon, and Hubbard wanting to evaluate this proposal.  


Juvenile Education with county coordination was suggested, with members Carter, Cannon, Davis, Hubbard, Johnson, and Joy willing to evaluate this proposal.


Graham proposed the enforcement of Atlanta’s current human rights ordinance.


The assessment on the first fifteen days after an arrest was suggested by the Work Group to feed into programs like referrals, post-program follow-ups, focus on the family impact, and jail programs, but few members wanted to evaluate this proposal.


Meanwhile, the RJAC and the Solutions Not Punishment Coalition (SNapCO) sponsored their People’s Proposal program calling for an Atlanta Pre-Booking Diversion Program for Street Level Sex Work Offenses, to redirect sex workers to community-based treatment and support services.  


This Pre-Booking Diversion would consist of law enforcement and social services working together to tailor responses individual needs through case management and services, instead of through jail, to reduce recidivism and save tax dollars.


SNapCO, which organized in response to the SOAP ordinance, consists of concerned citizens, including former and current sex workers.


Groups represented at SNapCO include LaGender, Women on the Rise, Georgians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, Trans(forming), Occupy Atlanta’s Women Caucus, and Transgender Individuals Living Their Truth, Inc.


The principles behind the Pre-Booking Diversion program include: training and policies for law enforcement officers; immediate access for needed services; funding for direct services rather than just administration; reducing harm by moving to a new life; peer outreach programs by former sex workers as guides, coaches, and advocates to help with educational programs, housing, and job training; neighborhood watch and other groups involved in the role of referrals; and outreach, case management, and service providers involved in the Pre-Booking Diversion.


At the July WGRP meeting, members Cannon, Davis, Graham, Hubbard, Johnson, and Mullinax wanted to evaluate on this Pre-Booking Diversion program proposal.


SNapCO’s proposed Pre-Booking Diversion program was inspired by Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), a pre-booking diversion to help Seattle’s low-level drug and sex work offenders.


RJAC and SNapCO have made contact with the Ford Foundation, Open Society Institute, and other private and community foundations, to learn more about Pre-Booking Diversion programs.  


The Ford Foundation has offered to finance the City of Atlanta and Working Group members to travel to Seattle, to see how the Pre-Booking program works for themselves.


“Giving someone a criminal record makes it almost impossible for folks to find an alternative means… work [sic] to meet their basic needs, so it is not effective,” Vicki Fatima of SNapCO said in the release.


Of course, if enacted, this would not be the first time the City has contemplated requiring APD to work with social service agencies.  In 2005, the City enacted legislation banning panhandling in different parts of the City and requiring APD, when making a panhandling arrest, to contact a homeless services referral team.  


However, last year, it was revealed that APD never enforced the ordinance, and not a single referral was ever made pursuant to the ordinance.


Bervera tells APN the April and May WGRP meetings were to lay down the groundwork, while the June meeting was to hear from the community.  


The June meeting was also about sharing data or facts on issues like the costs of arresting and jailing sex workers, but the data was not detailed or helpful to groups, like RJAC or SNapCO.


Neither RJAC nor SNapCO can get accurate data on how much it costs to arrest and jail sex workers, in addition to other information from the City of Atlanta.


RJAC and SNapCO did find statistics from the Atlanta Police Department (APD) and the Municipal Court Public Defender’s Office that shows in 2012 Atlanta’s arrest-only approach resulted in over 1,400 arrests for solicitation.  


Only 300 of the 1,400 were john arrests, while 1,100 were solicitation arrests of sex workers.  


“We’re excited about the possibility of Atlanta doing something cutting edge and moving away from criminalization as the only response to street-level sex work,” Bervera told APN in an interview.


“Harm reduction, treatment, and services is the most impactful, cost-effective, and humane way to address problems associated with street-level sex work,” Misty Novitch, an organizer and coordinator with SNapCO, told APN.


“We really have a chance in Atlanta to have policies around street-level sex work that we can truly be proud of, in line with the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, that nonviolently resist backwardness and respect the dignity of each person,” Novitch said.


“We have a chance, in this moment, at this time, to become a model in this country for addressing the problems of street-level sex work, but we have to seize it – we have to let the Working Group on Prostitution, the City Council, and Mayor Reed know which way the wind is blowing,” she said.


Novitch believes SNapCO has not been given much data by the City of Atlanta nor the APD on arrests and the cost of probation to punish sex workers.  


Novitch believes the costs of in-jail programs to be at 50,000 dollars per year, while the Pre-Booking Diversion programs would cost fifteen thousand dollars per year, but this is only an educated guess, with little data from the City.


“The current approach is wrong, ineffective, and inhuman, and will make it more inhuman for sex workers,” she said.


Novitch agrees with McDaniel regarding the use of pronouns when it comes to those arrested, who may be transgender.  Call them women, not trans-women; it is disrespectful to call them trans-women, not women.  Call men men and women women, based on the sex or gender with which they identify, she said.


When it comes to the difference between sex work for income and forced sex trafficking, Novitch believes, “It is really related as well, because most prostitutes become prostitutes at twelve to fourteen years old, so they are children getting into it and eventually maybe they accepted it; and children technically can’t consent.  They don’t necessary see themselves as trafficked or slaves.”


“I think there is a big difference between actual slavery types of situations, or exploitation of kids and women, but it is all very connected, even if not necessarily the same thing.  Either way we don’t want to say, ‘Oh you are choosing to do this,’ therefore, you are bad… We are trying to avoid [this],” Novitch said.


“How are they bad, they are trying to make money?  We might question in the first place, why is this so bad?  But overall this is a nonviolent crime… so if we were to decriminalize, we can go to [the] real root of why people do it in the first place.  If you want to stop it that bad, you don’t banish people,” she said.


A July 2012 report by the United Nations Global Commission on HIV and the Law recommends that nations should repeal laws prohibiting consensual voluntary adult sex work and decriminalize voluntary use of illegal injection drugs to combat HIV.  


This Commission also want nations to clearly distinguish the difference in laws, between sex trafficking and prostitution.


The International Labour Organization, meanwhile, believes sex work should be a regulated occupation “that protects workers and customers.”


Novitch fears tight control by Work Group by the Mayor, as well as another “medieval ordinance.”


“You got to pay the bills.  You got to do whatever you do, to pay the bills.  People have kids,” Novitch said.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Novitch believed that pre-booking would cost an estimated five thousand dollars per person, but she says her estimate is fifteen thousand dollars per person.


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