California law makes it illegal to engage in the act of prostitution. It is a criminal act for the person selling sex, the person buying sex, and even for person who acts as a middleman. It is unlawful for someone to even offer or agree to engage in prostitution. This is known as solicitation, and can result in a misdemeanor charge, with a possible penalty of up to six months in jail. Some officials are now looking to get tougher on sex buyers and increase the penalties to felony charges.
Commercial sex buyers, or “johns”, may be targeted by officials in Los Angeles to increase penalties and require them to register as sex offenders. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell calls johns pedophiles and child molesters. “If we can take away the demand and very clearly let people know this is going to ruin their life,” said McDonnell, “we're hoping that's going to be a disincentive.”
The change in policy would more aggressively go after the customers, without necessarily increasing penalties for sex workers. Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Casey Bates likens the current penalties to those associated with a DUI. An LA County taskforce is expected to begin operations this fall, and charge people soliciting prostitution with the additional crimes such as rape, child abuse, endangerment, or conspiracy. Massachusetts, New York and Colorado have followed a similar concept.
Because California doesn't have a specific law to charge sex buyers for trafficking crimes, Alameda and Los Angeles counties are trying to use the laws they already have to more aggressively go after the johns. Other states do have laws to apply trafficking penalties to the buyers. Seattle has some of the toughest laws, allowing a customer to be charged with commercial sexual abuse of a minor, which can mean more than 2 years in jail, and sex offender registration.
About 10 years ago, Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway started to go after sex trafficking by targeting customers, with increased fines and penalties, instead of arresting the sex workers. Meanwhile, other countries such as Denmark, Germany and New Zealand have gone the other way, and decriminalized both the purchase and sale of sex services.
Recently, the group Amnesty International has endorsed decriminalization of sex work. They say that the criminalization has forced the practice underground, making it difficult for prostitutes to speak out when they are victims of violence and abuse. The controversial position has brought on outrage by celebrities, lawmakers and church leader, who equate prostitution with sex trafficking, and believe that legalization would make matters worse for sex workers.
While Los Angeles is trying to make it harder for people to pay for sex, a San Francisco sex worker is hoping to make the practice legal. Maxine Doogan founded the Erotic Service Provider Legal Education and Research Project, and filed a lawsuit challenging California's laws against prostitution. The group claims that the current criminalization of sex work deprives people of a fundamental right to engage in consensual sexual activity.
At the Gorelick Law Offices, attorney Lynn Gorelick has dedicated her legal career to defending people facing criminal charges in the East Bay. With more than 30 years of experience, Lynn Gorelick understands the criminal laws and penalties you're facing and will make sure you get the justice you deserve. If you are facing a criminal charge, contact the local East Bay criminal defense attorney who understands that you do not have to plead guilty just because you were arrested.