NY Should Allow Trafficking Survivors To Clear Criminal Records

October 1, 2019

A good prostitution-related bill that passed the Assembly side of the NY legislature in June is still pending in the state Senate. This legislation — known on the Senate side as S981A — would fully vacate the criminal convictions of human-trafficking victims.

In 2010, NY became the first state to enact a law that allows human-trafficking victims to vacate certain criminal convictions related to sex work. This law was a good first step, but it didn’t go far enough to protect the rights and safety of trafficked individuals. While the 2010 law recognizes the social, psychological, and financial consequences of labeling victims as criminals, its scope is limited: The law allows only sex-related trafficking survivors to clear convictions — not consensual sex-work convictions, and not convictions for non-sexual forms of labor exploitation.

Human-trafficking victims are often arrested for offenses that extend beyond prostitution, such as drug possession, trespassing, or possession of a weapon. DSW General Counsel Melissa Broudo was featured in The New York Times in 2015 for her pioneering work in this field. Broudo contended that criminalization makes it more difficult for trafficking victims and consensual adult sex workers alike to build a life outside of the industry because of employment and housing discrimination. And convictions have especially severe consequences for non-citizens, because those convicted of prostitution-related offenses are often deported.

DSW enthusiastically supports the NY legislation, which was introduced by Jessica Ramos (D) on the Senate side. It’s vital to take a harm-reduction, human-rights approach when fighting for justice for trafficking survivors.

Sen. Jessica Ramos (D) and Assembly Member Richard Gottfried (D) speak about the bill they are co-sponsoring in Albany. (Photo: Danielle Blunt/Queens Eagle)

Demonstrators march in support of vacatur legislation in Jackson Heights, July 2018. (Photo: Andy Katz/Brooklyn Eagle)

The bill, as proposed in April (via NYSenate.org)

Tiffany Cabán Concedes Queens DA Race

August 6, 2019

Tiffany Cabán came within 60 votes of winning the Queens DA race, running on a platform of decriminalizing and decarcerating nonviolent offenders such as sex workers. She specifically pledged her support to the sex work community. After a lengthy recount process, she conceded on August 6.

Despite her loss, Cabán was able to push sex workers’ message of destigmatizing, decriminalizing and decarcerating. She pushed her opponent Melinda Katz and all Queens residents to rethink how we police our communities.

DSW General Counsel Melissa Broudo and one of our legal consultants, Marguerite Schauer, volunteered their time to oversee the extensive recount process of this extremely close and important election.

NY elections committee reviews all ballots cast in the DA’s race (July 25).

“Gay Panic” Defense Can No Longer Be Used to Excuse Murder, a Win for Trans Sex Workers

Just before the June 30, 2019, kickoff of the World Pride March in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed A2707, a new law that bans the "gay and transgender panic" defense from being used in murder cases prosecuted in New York State. The panic defense has historically been utilized to lessen charges in the case that the defendant alleges his or her violent actions with in response to the unwanted advances of someone of the same sexual orientation. The defense has also been used in the murder trials of transgender victims. New York is the sixth state to ban the use of such a defense, the first being California in 2014.

In 1944, 19-year-old Lucien Carr used it to excuse the murder of 33-year-old David Kammerer, whom he stabbed in Riverside Park and dumped into the Hudson River. Carr alleged that Kammerer had been following him around the country making continual, unwanted sexual advances. His killing was depicted in the media as an honorable response to such a threat. Though convicted of murder, Carr pled guilty to a lessened charge of manslaughter and served only two years. The defense has been used dozens of times since then, as an outgrowth of the traditional legal doctrine of "provocation," or that the victim is partially responsible for a crime by eliciting it through some offensive action (Suk Gersen, 2019).

The memory of institutionalized violence against the LGBTQIA community lingered as the world commemorated the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots on June 30. In 2018, a federal bill to ban the "gay and trans panic" defense nationwide died in a U.S. House committee. The New York bill is a step towards protecting the health, safety, and very humanity of every individual in the United States, but we still have a long way to go.

The #DecriminalizeSexWork movement has played a vital role in speaking out about the criminalization of trans and queer bodies, especially for women of color and those involved in the sex trade. Grassroots activism has been vital to the passage of this bill. We are fighting against the unjustifiable deaths of those who are most vulnerable, such as Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died in her jail cell on June 7 at Rikers, where she was being held, unable to make a $500 bail resulting from a prostitution arrest in August 2017. Polanco is the tenth transgender woman of color to be found dead in the U.S. in 2019. Decriminalization is necessary to combat state-sponsored violence, such as that condoned by the "gay panic" defense. Our path forward is to focus on public health and harm reduction and to stop the murders of innocent people.

After signing A2707 to ban “gay/trans panic” legal defense in NY, Gov. Cuomo marched in the New York City Pride parade. (photo: Brittany Newman/NYT, 2019)

Tiffany Cabán: Champion of Sex Workers’ Rights

Campaigning for district attorney of NYC, Tiffany Cabán initially declared victory on election night, June 25, 2019, but a full recount is currently ongoing due to how close the original count was after absentee ballots were figured in. The process is expected to take a few weeks.

If victorious, Canán would be the first queer Latina Democratic nominee for District Attorney in Queens. It will be a huge victory for sex workers. The 31-year-old former public defender has served New York County and the Legal Aid Society for 6 years. Ms. Cabán campaigned on a platform of criminal-justice reform, including the decriminalization of sex work.

Cabán’s win, over Democratic organization-backed Melinda Katz, was recalled after Board of Education representatives began tallying paper votes after the primary. The BOE predicts the recount, which began on July 9, will take a minimum of 10 days. Democratic nominees historically run unchallenged in Queens, so the winner will likely serve as the next District Attorney.

Despite this upset, Cabán’s campaign has been heralded as one of the most stunning victories of the new anti-establishment Democratic Party, paralleling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of powerful Queens Democratic machine candidate Joe Crowley almost a year ago (Nixon, New York Magazine). In a speech at the New Visions Democratic Club debate in Jackson Heights on April 29, Cabán asserted, “Who I am and what I fight for has been shaped by my experiences in over-policed, over-criminalized and resource-starved communities.” Her platform encompasses the reversal of economic and racial inequality in policing, increasing funding for schools rather than prisons, an end to mass incarceration and the war on drugs.

This election has exciting implications for the work of DSW and the broader #decrimsexwork coalition. A memo instructing fellow DAs not to prosecute sex workers and their customers has been pledged as one of Cabán’s first priorities if she were to take office. Not only would this change the lives of sex workers in Queens, increasing rights and safety through the legitimization of their work, but it shows the effects of decriminalization to be real and meaningful. In a Vice article, former Manhattan assistant DA Marie Solis describes how, when the District Attorney declines to prosecute an offense, it functions as a demonstrative trial run for how decriminalization can improve public safety—and pushed for legislative action, as with the decriminalization of marijuana possession. The decriminalization model, proposed by DecrimNY and endorsed by Cabán, would repeal parts of New York penal code that criminalize prostitution and especially target transgender women of color (Solis, Vice).

At DSW, we believe the current decriminalization bill could use improvements, and we are excited by the possibility of promoting them with the help of our supporters. DSW is humbled and inspired by the hard work of so many in this community that made such a historic campaign possible—and honored to be involved in this exciting step towards rights and safety for all.

Tiffany Cabán campaigns in New York City on the day of her District Attorney Democratic Primary election. (photo: Seth Wenig/AP, 2019)

New York Legislator To Introduce “Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act” – June 10, 2019

Protesters advocate for the full decriminalization of sex work in New York State. (Photo: Rolling Stone)
On June 10, Assemblywoman Julia Salazar, in tandem with local coalition DecrimNY, announced that she would be introducing a series of bills in the NY legislature that would fully decriminalize sex work in New York State. While it usually takes years to enact legislation into law, the mere introduction of the NY legislation fits with the trend of good legislation that has been introduced in states like NH, RI, and HI this year — something we haven't seen in decades of organizing.