The Seattle City Council is poised Monday to change the name of the crime “patronizing a prostitute” to “sexual exploitation,” and the state Legislature may in its new session increase the offense’s maximum penalty from 90 days to a year in jail.
“In a nutshell, the idea is to attack the demand-side of prostitution and human trafficking,” said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who supports both measures.
“You do that by recognizing that in most cases the prostituted person is a victim … and by making it clear that there are consequences for coming to Seattle to buy sex.”
The council’s public-safety committee last week recommended passing a bill making several changes in the city’s criminal code, including the “patronizing a prostitute” for “sexual exploitation” swap. The full council will take up the bill Monday.
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The swap won’t have a prosecutorial effect; the point is to change the way prostitution is viewed, Holmes said.
“I think words do matter,” Holmes said. “We patronize Starbucks stores. You engage in a crime of sexual exploitation.”
City officials can’t change the crime’s maximum penalty on their own. They need the Legislature to upgrade it from a simple misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor.
State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, has been working on a bill that would do just that and plans to introduce it during the legislative session that begins Monday.
“I’ve worked on anti-trafficking legislation since 2002. We were the first state in the country, in 2003, to enact a state crime of human trafficking,” Kohl-Welles said.
“The new focus is demand reduction — trying to curb the demand by the johns.”
Kohl-Welles is optimistic that her bill will become law this year.
Upgrading the crime to a gross misdemeanor would “give us an even bigger hammer” and provide fodder for a new public-awareness campaign, Holmes said.
Not everyone subscribes to the notion that all sex workers are victims. The Seattle chapter of a group called the Sex Worker Outreach Project held a three-day symposium in the city last month to make the opposite argument.
“As somebody very leery of using the criminal-justice system to curb human behavior when it comes to sex, I find this very disconcerting that we want to punish men for having sex, especially when the women are consenting and wanting money,” Melinda Chateauvert, the author of “Sex Workers Unite!,” said at the time.
But the potential changes to Seattle and state code are part of a broad effort by local politicians, law-enforcement officials and some activists to change the way prostitution-related crimes are policed and prosecuted.
The City Attorney’s Office and Seattle Police Department have adopted new policies and tactics, Holmes said.
Updated in 2013, the City Attorney’s Office policy on prosecuting sex workers says all individuals charged with prostitution will be offered the option of community court “unless extraordinary circumstances are met.” The policy also says all prostituted individuals will be offered a conditional dismissal regardless of their criminal history.
The office’s goal has been to file more cases for patronizing a prostitute than for prostitution. In 2011, prosecutors filed 98 patronizing and 199 prostitution cases. From 2012 through September 2014, they filed 188 patronizing and 34 prostitution cases.
The SPD’s vice and high-risk victims unit has shifted emphasis from stings targeting sex workers to operations targeting sex buyers, Holmes said.
One night last June, cops arrested three men for patronizing a prostitute after soliciting sex with undercover officers in a sting on Aurora Avenue North. They also arrested a suspected pimp for trying to persuade one of the officers to work for him.
The unit hasn’t stopped policing sex workers: That same night, cops picked up 12 women and a 16-year-old girl for prostitution. But rather than book them into jail, they took the women to Real Escape from the Sex Trade, a social-services facility.
King County officials also are pushing the new approach, with the county taking part in a national, grant-funded program called “The CEASE Network.” As part of the county’s “Buyer Beware” initiative, individuals convicted of patronizing a prostitute must complete a 10-week intervention course, like domestic-violence offenders do.
Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or firstname.lastname@example.org