San Francisco Weighs Decriminalizing Prostitution

San Francisco's legendary liberalism will be put to the test by a ballot measure that would decriminalize prostitution and prohibit authorities from arresting or prosecuting a person for selling sex. Proposition K stops police from treating prostitution like a crime.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. One of the more unusual issues facing voters tomorrow is a local ballot measure in San Francisco. Proposition K, as it's called, would bar the police from investigating or prosecuting prostitution. As NPR's Richard Gonzales explains, the measure wouldn't legalize prostitution, but it would keep most prostitutes out of jail.

RICHARD GONZALES: Carol Lee(ph) is a tall woman with long red hair who doesn't mind admitting she's part of the oldest profession.

Ms. CAROL LEE: I've worked as a sex worker for about 25 years in San Francisco.

GONZALES: In fact, Lee claims to have coined the term "sex worker" back in the '70s. She's a longtime advocate of decriminalization of prostitution, especially after a painful personal experience.

Ms. LEE: Several years ago, I was raped while I working as a sex worker, and I basically - I really couldn't call the police. I certainly wouldn't feel the police would help me in any way, because they were the enemy.

GONZALES: Decriminalization would make her work safer, says Lee, and that's why she's part of a coalition of current and former sex workers and their supporters who gathered 12,000 voter signatures to get Proposition K on the ballot. If approved, Prop K would bar the San Francisco police from investigating, arresting, or prosecuting anyone for prostitution.

Rachel West, as part of an activist group known as the US PROStitutes Collective, says decriminalization would also save the city millions of dollars and have a public health benefit, too.

Ms. RACHEL WEST (US PROStitutes Collective): It would also mean that sex workers can present more information to their health care providers than now they can, because they're criminalized and, you know, fear of being identified as prostitutes.

GONZALES: Prop K is endorsed by the local Democratic Party, but it's opposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and District Attorney Kamala Harris, as well as other former sex workers such as Heather Weigand. She's the executive director of SafeHouse, a program for women trying to leave the sex trade.

Ms. HEATHER WEIGAND (Project Director, SafeHouse San Francisco): And so, what are we saying to the women, and children, and people in the margins that are going to suffer in this economy coming up? That, come to San Francisco because we think prostitution's great, and it just goes on freely everywhere?

GONZALES: That's exactly what law enforcement officials fear. Their point was underscored with the announcement of a major national sting operation that busted a dozen prostitution rings, some involving children, including several here in the San Francisco Bay area. San Francisco police Captain Elbert Bardini, who heads the vice unit, says Prop K would cripple such sex trafficking investigations.

Captain ELBERT BARDINI (Vice Unit, San Francisco Police): We wouldn't have that opportunity, one, to do these investigations and locate people who are being exploited. And secondly, we wouldn't be able to respond to calls from the community saying, I've got a house of prostitution operating three doors down from my home, I want you to do something about it.

GONZALES: Four years ago, a similar measure to decriminalize prostitution in Berkeley was soundly rejected. But supporters of Prop K believe San Francisco's history as a more sexually liberal enclave will change their fortunes. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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