California Gov. Gavin Newsom passes bill prioritizing protection of sex workers

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On Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 233, a bill that prohibits prostitution-related arrests of people who witness or are victims of certain violent crimes and that prevents condoms from being used as evidence of sex work. 

Prior to the passing of SB 233 as a statewide law, similar policies were instituted in both San Francisco and Berkeley, according to Berkeley Police Review Commissioner Ismail Ramsey. On April 5, the Police Review Commission, or PRC, passed an amendment to Lexipol Policy 318 that mirrors the first clause of SB 233. 

“San Francisco and Berkeley certainly set a precedent for future legislation,” Ramsey said.  

The passing of SB 233 will have little effect on Berkeley since similar practices are already in place, according to Ramsey. Ramsey said that although the Berkeley Police Department has already implemented both clauses of SB 233, the bill’s passing formally establishes that condoms will now be prohibited from being used as evidence of sex work. 

Maxine Doogan, president of Community United for Safety and Protection, said granting immunity to sex workers needs to be prioritized, according to a July 2 press release from the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project. 

“It was clear to the Assembly Public Safety Committee Members that the law enforcement need to prioritize public safety and public health and stop their current (practice) of taking condoms (as) evidence of prostitution,” Doogan said in the press release. 

According to Ramsey, UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare adjunct professor Alexandra Lutnick’s study on the “Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers Policy” highlighted the need for laws such as SB 233 and the amendment to Lexipol Policy 318. 

Lutnick’s work revealed that sex workers are disproportionately victims of violent crimes and yet feel less comfortable reporting offenses, according to Ramsey. Crimes that sex workers can report without the danger of being charged for sex work, as specified in SB 233, include domestic violence, sexual battery, human trafficking and stalking. 

“If we fail to prioritize (sex workers’) health and safety they will not come forward and work with law enforcement as witnesses and victims of violence,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón in a Jan. 11, 2018, press release from San Francisco’s Department on the Status of Women. “Ultimately, unreported crimes and criminals pose a threat to everyone’s public safety.”

Ben Klein is an assistant news editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @BenKlein_dc.