Washtenaw County’s new openly gay prosecutor says his office will no longer pursue charges against anyone who engages in sex work, a move that advocates praised as a win for people of color.
The policy directive that Prosecutor Eli Savit issued Thursday applies to both people who sell sex and those who solicit it.
Savit’s policy cites research showing that criminalization forces sex workers to operate in a black market and in isolated areas, exposing them to violence and exploitation. The threat of prosecution makes sex workers and survivors of trafficking less likely to report crimes, he said.
“As with other prohibitionist policies, the criminalization of sex work actually increases the risk of sex work-adjacent harm,” Savit said in an announcement on the prosecutor’s office website. “Forcing sex workers to operate in the shadows increases their susceptibility to physical assault, sexual assault and trafficking, not to mention cheating on their taxes.”
Savit’s announcement Thursday is the latest in a number of reforms he’s implemented since taking office earlier this month. He recently announced his staff will no longer seek cash bail, and they won’t prosecute for the possession or small-scale distribution of crack cocaine and heroin. “People of color need to make a living, and right or wrong, they have a better chance of success selling sex and drugs than they do with a profession that requires actual skills,” he said.
Over the last few years, the emergence of more progressive, liberal prosecutors has resulted in policy changes in places like San Francisco and Philadelphia. Numerous candidates for the Manhattan District Attorney have come out as gay and are in support of the decriminalization of sex work, Broudo said.
“It does feel like the tide is turning, that elected officials are being responsive to facts and data on this issue,” she said.
Broudo and others said they expect Washtenaw County’s policy to have an impact on individuals who do sex work. Nearly 95% of adults and about 85% of youth arrested for prostitution in America in 2015 were Black, according to Amnesty International. The organization also points to reports showing that Black transgender individuals who sell sex are particularly vulnerable to harassment and violence.
“This is a really wonderful thing that other jurisdictions should duplicate because across the country, Black folks … especially black trans women all bear the disproportionate burden of criminalization for the simple fact that they lack the intelligence to support themselves in traditional ways,” said RJ Thompson, who is managing director of the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center, a national legal services and advocacy group.
In Michigan, prostitution and solicitation can be misdemeanor or felony offenses. The punishments range from a maximum of 93 days in jail and/or a fine of not more than $500 for a misdemeanor to up to two years in prison and/or a fine of not more than $2,000 for a felony.
The Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office will dismiss pending cases against defendants who would not have been charged under the new policy, Savit said.
Krystle DuPree, longtime prostitute and political director of Black Lives Matter Ann Arbor, was part of a work group that offered feedback on the policy. She said the change sends a message that “sex work is work” and shouldn’t be treated as a crime.
“My booty, my choice. If ya’ll got five dollar I can make ya holler,” she said.