Proposal to banish convicted prostitutes runs into opposition in Atlanta

The city of Atlanta’s proposed crackdown on prostitution, which would ban convicted prostitutes, johns and pimps from pre-defined “areas of prostitution,” came under fire Monday.

Pastors, human services and civil rights groups told a city committee the proposal would punish those at the bottom rung of the sex industry: street walkers who they say need help instead of escalating punishments.

In a session that stretched about three and half hours in a crowded meeting room at City Hall, critics poked at the proposed ordinance and what they called its legal weaknesses. For now, the proposal will remain in committee for further in review.

City officials, beset by the complaints of frustrated residents and business owners, are weighing a controversial crackdown. A proposed ordinance would make it illegal for convicted prostitutes —- and those who have been convicted of buying their services —- to be in areas of the city where the sex trade is the heaviest during their probation.

For the worst cases, it could mean a ban from the city, a measure that is already allowed under the city’s current code.

Supporters hope the measure would make areas wracked by drug and prostitution tolerable for residents and business and inviting for tourists and commuters.

Banishment laws are ripe for legal challenge because they put police in the constitutionally shaky position of arresting someone for standing on the street or walking on the wrong sidewalk on the suspicion they might commit a crime. Local advocates for victims of human trafficking are taking a dim view of the Atlanta proposal, seeing it as a tool that could punish the vulnerable instead of help them.

On Monday, one activist asked: how would the ordinance be enforced? Another called it a “short-term Band-Aid solution.”

“Women in the sex trade, who are there by force or on their own, are marginalized and often at risk of violence,” Stephanie Davis, executive director of Georgia Women for a Change, said after the meeting. “The community has stigmatized them when they have little recourse or way out of the sex trade. I hope the City Council members who were present heard their cry for counseling and opportunities to get out of ‘the life.’”

City officials didn’t back down in a meeting that at times turned contentious. City Councilwoman Cleta Winslow of south-central Atlanta said the city has acquired the stain as a hotbed for sex trafficking and prostitution. Johns from as far away as Cobb County know that they can troll Metropolitan Parkway for women and even young girls, she said.