Atlanta is on the verge of going from the city too busy to hate to the city too busy to care.
Atlanta Police Chief George Turner has proposed an ordinance aimed at stopping prostitution that could banish convicted sex workers from certain parts of the city — or even Atlanta itself.
Under the proposed ordinance, a person arrested for sex work would be both jailed and, upon release, exiled from that community for a certain period. If he or she is found in the neighborhood again, they could be arrested on sight. If convicted a second time, a judge would have the authority to banish that person from the city limits. Customers of sex workers could face the same penalties.
Atlanta police and neighborhood residents have real concerns about the effect that this problem has on communities. In fact, it has been referred to as a "plague." In our outreach work with the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, we have encountered men and women from as far as Europe who are now soliciting sex on streets from southwest Atlanta to Midtown.
However, arresting and trying to banish people convicted of prostitution will create an even bigger problem.
Not only do we have little understanding of the long-term consequences of this ordinance, we have not pushed for the types of programs and community development that would allow people to find real alternatives to sex work. We contend that this ordinance is ill-conceived and would affect women, men, and families of all colors. Rather than convince sex workers to change their ways, it would run them underground. In short, arrest and banishment are not the answers for Atlanta's prostitutes.
The problems with prostitution run a lot deeper than women selling sex for a living. According to studies, anywhere from 75 to 95 percent of sex workers have suffered some kind of sexual abuse. This includes rape and/or molestation as a child or teenager, be it by a family member, friend of the family, or stranger.
In addition, many have suffered or are suffering with mental health issues. Because they received inadequate or zero counseling, many sex workers end up medicating themselves with drugs and/or alcohol. They then turn to prostitution to support their drug habits. Often, these men and women are from the poorest neighborhoods in Atlanta and don't earn a living wage. Some use prostitution to support their children.
Many prostitutes work in areas where they live. If a parent is incarcerated or banished from an area under the ordinance, what would happen to their children? Their sons and daughters might have an even harder time finding the stability they need to finish school. And as a result, prostitutes might continue the cycle of doing what they know in order to make ends meet.
People trying to escape sex work need intervention, treatment, and alternatives — not punishment.
Nonprofits, including our organization, have tried to help. Free of charge, working on grants and donations, we have offered HIV counseling and testing, a syringe-disposal program, STD screenings, education programs, and street outreach services. We would love to partner with the city to help solve this problem.
Atlanta could save a lot of money and make more progress not by arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating sex workers, but by helping them. And it can look to other cities for ideas.
According to the Austin American-Statesman, locking up convicts in a Texas prison for a year costs $18,538. A year in a lower-security state jail costs nearly $15,500. But enrolling a nonviolent offender, such as a sex worker, in a community-based program costs just $4,300 a year.
The Corpus Christi, Texas, Police Department adopted a model used in Dallas in which police officers work with health care officials, outreach workers, and the judicial system to provide social services to prostitutes and offer a way off the streets. Police Chief Floyd Simpson says the outreach and community support model works far better. Jail is a last resort. In Seattle, sex workers are given the choice between accepting social services, such as counseling or drug and alcohol treatment, or jail.
Sex workers are still God's children. They are mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, and friends with all the same human needs that we share. Over the past 14 years, I (Marshall) have helped 364 people get off the street. I've learned what they want most is for someone to care and to offer them guidance, just like someone did for me when I was living on the streets and trading drugs with women for sex in 1997.
The Atlanta City Council met this week with community leaders, pastors, and advocates (including us) to discuss the proposal and will give it more consideration. We hope they'll take these words to heart — and remember that we can't arrest and banish away Atlanta's problems.