Why Decriminalizing Sex Work Is Good Criminal Justice Policy

Too many people are incarcerated in the United States, and scarce resources are spent targeting victimless crimes.1 Tens of thousands of people are arrested annually for prostitution and related crimes. The majority of those arrested are adults who engage in consensual, victimless activities.2 Where sex work is decriminalized, law enforcement is able to focus resources on prosecuting human trafficking and other violent crimes.3

Those who are arrested and jailed for buying or selling sex face incarceration, fines, parole, and probation. They are likely to end up with permanent records that hinder future opportunities for employment, housing, and other necessities.4

Tough-on-crime policies lead to mass incarceration. Decades of tough-on-crime policies overcrowded American prisons with nonviolent offenders. The devastating consequences of the War on Drugs has prompted reform.5 It is time for laws criminalizing and marginalizing sex workers to see the same shift.

Save taxpayer money. Arresting people for consensual activities along with all of the additional costs after the arrest – jail, prosecution, probation, etc. – pose a significant burden to taxpayers.6 Yet, the criminalization of prostitution neither ends nor reduces it7; it solely pushes sex work into the underground market, where workers are unprotected from exploitation and abuse.

We know what prohibition does to markets. Alcohol prohibition failed to reduce demand and made alcohol more dangerous. The prohibition of drugs did the same. Laws have adapted to address these realities, replacing criminalization with harm-reduction policies. Combatting violence and abuse in sex work should be prioritized over arresting consensual adults.

Criminalizing sex work only amplifies the harms associated with it. Police, prosecutors and jails are ill-equipped to improve the lives of people who are arrested for trying to earn a living via prostitution.

Too often police abuse their powers and exploit or rape sex workers.8 Sex workers engaging in prostitution who are harmed by police officers have nowhere to turn for help. Decriminalization would empower sex workers and substantially reduce this abuse of power.


1 The most recent FBI data from 2018 reported 24,944 arrests for “Prostitution and Commercialized Vice” https://crime-data-explorer.fr.cloud.gov/.

2 “Should Prostitution be a crime?” Emily Bazelon. May 5, 2016 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/magazine/should-prostitution-be-a-crime.html

3 “Decriminalising sex work in New Zealand: its history and impact.”Fraser Crichton. August 2015. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/beyond-trafficking-and-slavery/decriminalising-sex-work-in-new-zealand-its-history-and-impact/

4 “Consequences of Policing Prostitution?” Dank, Yahner, & Yu. April 2017. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/89451/legal_aid_final_0.pdf

5 “Public opinion favors criminal justice and drug policy reform, making now the time to act.” Legal Action Center. https://lac.org/public-opinion-favors-criminal-justice-and-drug-policy-reform-making-now-the-time-to-act/

6 “No Price Too High: Victimless Crimes and the Ninth Amendment” Charles Fyffe, Robert M. Hardaway. 2003.

7 Department of Justice Assessment of Review of Operation of Article 64A of the Sexual Offences Order (Northern Ireland) 2008: Offence of Purchasing Sexual Services.  https://www.justice-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/justice/assessment-of-impact-criminalisation-of-purchasing-sexual-services.pdf

8 “Arrest the Violence: Human Rights Violations Against Sex Workers in 11 Countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia” December 17, 2009. https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/publications/arrest-violence-human-rights-violations-against-sex-workers-11-countries-central-and-eastern