Chicago Sun-Times Op-Ed: Eliminate felony prostitution in Illinois

By Lynne Johnson, Policy and Advocacy Director
Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation
      It’s time to call it off. The 13-year-old experiment of charging prostitution as a felony in Illinois has failed. People in prostitution are being cycled through the criminal justice system without access to the help they really need, and the people causing the harm are going unpunished. Recently, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Commissioner Bridget Gainer introduced a resolution calling for an end to felony prostitution charges in Cook County, in part to relieve pressure on the overcrowded jail. We are encouraged that local officials understand how wasteful and unfair felony prostitution really is, but the problem extends far beyond Cook County. To get to the root cause, the End Demand Illinois campaign is lobbying for a bill that would eliminate felony prostitution charges throughout our entire state.
      Glenda Sykes is determined to help make that happen. In March, Glenda testified before members of the Illinois Senate and explained how felony charges for prostitution had trapped her in a cycle of exploitation. “I had no hope,” she told them. “I thought I would die on the streets.” While it might seem like charging prostituted people with felonies could deter them, high recidivism rates prove that the punishment isn’t the answer. Glenda’s 13 felony prostitution convictions did not help her escape the sex trade, treat her drug problem or find employment. Now, Glenda is getting support from community-based organizations, but those felonies have impeded her from pursuing her dream to become a nurse. Glenda volunteers with other survivors at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to change things for people who are still struggling to get out of prostitution.
      The intentions behind the proposed Cook County moratorium on felony prostitution are good, but it is not the most effective response. A moratorium would only affect Cook County and would depend upon the cooperation of local law enforcement who would be under no legal obligation to follow it. Cook County officials also support the End Demand Illinois bill to eliminate felony prostitution statewide, which could save the Illinois Department of Corrections more than $2 million annually. It would also bring Illinois in line with how the rest of the country responds; only seven other states charge prostitution as a felony.
      Meanwhile, people who buy sex report that police ignore them and only target women and girls for arrest. The numbers reflect that reality. Under state law in 2011, there were 1,871 arrests of prostituted people but only 95 arrests for solicitation. Trying to buy sex—solicitation—is merely treated as a misdemeanor. In interviews, johns repeatedly say that facing legal consequences would make them think twice about buying sex. If you don’t want to see prostitution in your community, ask local police to go after the johns who create the demand for paid sex.
      It’s time to rethink our response to prostitution and for the General Assembly to eliminate the felony charge. Most people in the sex trade face chronic homelessness and substance abuse, and many engage in prostitution for basic necessities like food and shelter. In other parts of the country, prostituted people are offered support and services without being charged with a felony, and it’s working. Survivors say their lives change when they meet people like Glenda—people who have been where they are and can show them a way out.
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