Dropping prostitution offenses pitched by Albany progressives

This file photo from Nov. 1 shows members of the New York state Senate members meeting in the Senate Chamber on the opening day of the legislative session at the state Capitol in Albany. A new piece of legislation crafted by Democratic state lawmakers calls for new criminal justice measures, including one that would decriminalize prostitution involving consenting adults. 

ALBANY — Progressive Democratic lawmakers and scores of criminal law reform advocates have released a "Justice Roadmap Agenda" for 2021 that includes a measure that would decriminalize prostitution involving consenting adults.

The group argues in a position paper that in the November election where Democrats increased their dominance at the statehouse, New York voters gave them a "mandate to make bold and progressive change."

The coalition contended that a prostitution arrest "too often results in immigration and housing consequences for New Yorkers," and proposed that past criminal convictions be sealed from public view. The Senate legislation was crafted by Sen. Julia Salazar, D-Brooklyn.

Most of the legislative proponents for the agenda are from the downstate region. But the group includes several influential lawmakers who last year were among those who succeeded in transforming the criminal justice system to greatly reduce the reliance on cash bail at arraignments, legislation that has greatly reduced the prisoner population in county jails throughout the state.

One upstate lawmaker, Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, said he expects the pitch to legalize prostitution will be rejected by his colleagues.

"If they want to have an agenda that betters New York state, they could come up with ways to get small businesses back on track during this COVID crisis," Tague said. He said previous measures advanced by progressives, including the changes in the bail laws, have "been a disaster."

A North Country lawmaker, Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, also questioned the progressive group's focus, noting several criminal justice reforms have been addressed over the past several years, including raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18.

"The state budget deficit is in the billions of dollars and a lot of our local municipalities have budget deficits now," Jones said. "We should be focused on that. As far as legalizing prostitution, I am against that. Let's work on the things that will help make our society better.'

Nevada is the only state that allows prostitution, though on a limited scale. It is legal in eight rural counties at licensed brothels, but not elsewhere.

Other elements in the package would:

• prohibit police from sharing information with federal immigration and border patrol agents to shield undocumented immigrants from being potentially deported.

• bar police from arresting individuals for loitering for the purposes of prostitution. The advocates allege that police have often relied on that offense to bring charges of "walking while trans" —a phrase that suggests law enforcement intentionally target transgendered persons.

• decriminalize the sale and possession of syringes. Possession of the medical devices by users of illicit street drugs has at times been the basis for charges of possession of drug paraphernalia.

• legalize, regulate and tax the commercial sale and use of recreational marijuana. The proposal ran aground this year after strong opposition from police, physicians and the statewide Parent Teachers Association.

• implement "elder parole," allowing inmates 55 and older who have served 15 consecutive years or longer in prison to be considered for release, regardless of their criminal history.

• increase "transparency" after arrests so relatives could more readily locate a person who has been apprehended by police.

A 2021 agenda from the New York State Sheriffs Association in a few weeks, said the group's director, Peter Kehoe. The sheriffs are expected to continue their opposition to legalizing marijuana, he said.

As for the agenda favored by progressive lawmakers, Kehoe said: "The legislators and the governor have to start looking out for the general public and not just the wrongdoers."

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

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