California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill on Friday that reversed the loitering law police used to crack down on human trafficking and prostitution in the Golden State.
Authored by San Francisco’s Democrat Sen. Scott Wiener, SB 357 repeals a law that criminalized “loitering with the intent to engage in prostitution.” He says the law gave law enforcement a subjective perception of whether a person is “acting like” or “looks like” they engage in prostitution—especially transgender, black, and brown women. However, Weiner says revoking the law would not decriminalize soliciting or engaging in prostitution.
But opposers of the bill — on and off the Senate floor — all conclude taking away authority to investigate such loitering cases creates an easier environment for traffickers, pimps, and prostitution.
Former Los Angeles Police Department vice sergeant Stephany Powell, who has since become the director of law enforcement training and survivor services at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, said the bill would severely limit law enforcement’s ability to identify victims of human trafficking — including minors.
“Many officers rely on the loitering laws to initiate trafficking investigations that have led to serious convictions for traffickers and pimps,” Powell said in a statement. “SB 357 assumes that loitering laws are used to merely harass marginalized people, and by repealing them, these people will experience less discrimination from police. In reality, repealing loitering laws will only cause further harm to communities with existing poverty and high crime.”
CBS reported The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the 75,000-member Peace Officers Research Association of California also objected to the bill as it would make confronting those who commit prostitution-related crimes more difficult and Powell said in a tweet on Saturday that the “California bear has a tear in his eye” the day after Newsom signed the legislation.
“The Black community will be a free place for sex buyers (solicitation) and traffickers (procurement) to loiter and roam,” she said.
Victims of human trafficking and advocates to end modern-day slavery who opposed the bill spoke out against it at a press conference just before it passed through the Assembly and Senate last year.
Vanessa Russel, founder of Love Never Fails, a San Francisco-based anti-sex trafficking organization, said instead of providing help to survivors, the bill hurts them and causes the demand to increase.
Survivor Hannah Diaz, who joined Russel last year at an event opposing the bill, said “fatalities will increase” without the intervention allowed by law enforcement.
“With trauma-informed training and identification tactics, Diaz said. “Officers are an invaluable asset to the war against human trafficking.”
Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) said law enforcement works with anti-trafficking non-profits to rescue sex-trafficked minors and women.
“When we separate the victim on the street with the pimp down the block and around the corner,” Patterson said according to California Family Council. “They are not going to jail; they are going to a safe house. They are going to a place that cares for them.”
Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Irvine) said the bill further endangers women and girls.
“We often vote on very well-intentioned legislation that has unintended consequences,” Petrie-Norris said. “For me, the unintended consequence is making it more difficult to protect victims of child trafficking, even if that is a possibility.”
Yet Weiner’s supporters of the bill — like ACLUE California Action and Equality California and Democrats lawmakers — believe reversing the legislation takes away law enforcement authority to harass minority women, the transgender community, or individuals who look or dress like prostitutes.
Gov. Newsom stated during his signing of the bill, The Sacramento Bee reported, that his administration would monitor crime and prosecution trends for any possible unintended consequences and would act to mitigate such impacts.
“To be clear, this bill does not legalize prostitution. It simply revokes provisions of the law that have led to disproportionate harassment of women and transgendered adults,” he said. “While I agree with the author’s intent and I am signing this legislation, we must be cautious about its implementation.”
California has implemented several loitering laws in recent years. In 2016, the state passed a law that would treat minors involved in prostitution as victims instead of criminals. In addition, a 2019 bill bans arresting prostitutes who report various crimes as victims or witnesses.