Manhattan DA ending prosecution of prostitution, unlicensed massage

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. announced on Wednesday his office will no longer prosecute prostitution and unlicensed massage operations, moving to dismiss more than 900 such pending cases.

“Over the last decade we’ve learned from those with lived experience, and from our own experience on the ground: criminally prosecuting prostitution does not make us safer, and too often, achieves the opposite result by further marginalizing vulnerable New Yorkers,” said Vance. “For years, rather than seeking criminal convictions, my office has reformed its practice to offer services to individuals arrested for prostitution. Now, we will decline to prosecute these arrests outright, providing services and supports solely on a voluntary basis.”

“These cases — many dating back to the 1970s and 1980s — are both a relic of a different New York, and a very real burden for the person who carries the conviction or bench warrant."

- Cyrus Vance Jr., Manhattan district attorney

Vance is also dismissing more than 5,000 loitering cases related to prostitution, following the state’s repeal earlier this year of the law known as “Walking While Trans.”

Vance Jr. is the son of the late Cyrus Vance, who was secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1980. Prior to that, he was the deputy secretary of defense in the Johnson administration.

Since 2010, Vance Jr. says he has cut the office’s total prosecutions by more than half by ending the routine prosecution of marijuana smoking and possession, subway fare evasion, unlicensed vending, nonpayment of fines, loitering for prostitution, peaceful protest and summons cases.

Vance appeared along with Abigail Swenstein of the Legal Aid Society on Wednesday before Judge Charlotte Davidson, who granted Vance’s requests.

“We welcome this action to dismiss all pending prostitution and unlicensed massage-related cases as well as his new policy to decline to prosecute these arrests going forward,” said Swenstein, who works with the society’s exploitation intervention project. “However, this policy should not supplant the need to pass legislation that would fully decriminalize sex work and provide for criminal record relief for people convicted of prostitution offense.”

Vance’s measures also were applauded by several state and national anti-human-trafficking organizations.

“Black, Brown and East Asian women and girls, immigrants, and LGBTQ people have been disproportionately harmed by these laws,” said representatives of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition, in a joint statement. “Manhattan is the first borough to make the critical connection that using ‘unlicensed practice of a profession’ is a charge that is often used to make arrests in massage businesses.”

“Too often survivors end up in jail or with a criminal record because of things their traffickers or abusers force them to do,” said Anita Teekah of the anti-trafficking program at Safe Horizon, the nation’s largest victim’s services agency. “That’s not right. The announcement by the Manhattan district attorney is an important step forward and will mean fewer survivors end up in the criminal legal system.”

“This resolute action to actively decriminalize sex workers is the kind of change our community has been hoping for, advocating for, for decades,” said Cecilia Gentili, founder of Transgender Equity Consulting. ”This initiative to end the prosecution of people who are simply trying to work to survive through a depressed economy, and to immediately dismiss the almost 6,000 bench warrants for loitering, prostitution, and non-licensed massages is one of the most significant steps taken nationally in the effort to stop criminalizing sex work.”