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San Francisco Prostitutes, Mayor Clash on Vote to Stop Arrests

San Francisco- San Francisco may become the first major U.S. city to decriminalize prostitution.

Voters will decide tomorrow on a ballot measure that would stop police from enforcing laws against sex workers and eliminate funding for anti-prostitution programs. The measure, known as Proposition K, may pass, said District Attorney Kamala Harris. She opposes it, as does Mayor Gavin Newsom.

The proposal is sparking debate in a city known for embracing social changes such as gay marriage. For backers, the law is about worker rights, public health and safety. To the opposition, Proposition K is a welcome mat for criminals.

“It is premised on a false assumption that prostitution is a victimless crime,” Harris said in a telephone interview. “The reality is it’s a billion-dollar industry that includes sexual exploitation, child exploitation and human trafficking.”

Sex workers such as Maxine Doogan, a self-described erotic- services provider who says she has been in the business for 19 years, want the proposal to succeed. Doogan and the Erotic Services Providers Union she founded in 2004 collected 12,745 signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

“We are in desperate need to realign ourselves with some humane work conditions,” said Doogan. It’s not uncommon for sex workers to be raped or assaulted by clients, acts that many don’t report for fear of arrest, she said.

The sex workers’ union gained the support of the San Francisco Democratic Party, which voted 18 to 12 to endorse the measure.

Mayor Newsom and Harris, both Democrats, say the proposal fails to address the impact the change would have on society.

“It’s a terrible idea,” Newsom said in an interview. “The unintended consequences would be enormous.”

A cut in funding for anti-prostitution programs would force the city to shutter a class for first-time offenders known as “John school,” which is a national model, Newsom said. A program that helps rehabilitate prostitutes and enables them to quit also would be eliminated, Harris said.

The ballot measure reads: “Shall the City: stop enforcing laws against prostitution.” Proposition K doesn’t address how to regulate the sex trade, and the decriminalizing would prohibit officials from using public funds to crack down on it.

Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, the city’s director of sexually- transmitted-disease control and prevention, said he thinks decriminalization would improve public health without hindering trafficking investigations. He spoke as a public health expert who has studied the effects of decriminalizing prostitution in countries such as Australia, not as an employee of the health department, which doesn’t have a position on Proposition K.

“Where sex workers are allowed, they enjoy improved working conditions, suffer less violence and experience fewer STDs,” Klausner said. “We should be figuring out ways to make sex workers and their clients healthier, not arresting them.”

It isn’t the first time the city has considered the move. A task force recommended decriminalizing prostitution in 1996, but the Board of Supervisors never acted on it.

San Francisco has been at the forefront of other issues. Residents voted in 2005 to ban handguns, a measure that a California appeals court struck down this year. The city allows trees to be given protected landmark status. In 2004, Newsom ordered the city to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in violation of state law.

“The practical application of this law, if it is passed, would be very dangerous,” Harris said. “With prostitution comes pimps, johns, drug crimes and other crimes that threaten the safety of communities.”

San Francisco had 1,484 prostitution-related arrests from July 2007 to July 2008, said Erica Derryck, a spokeswoman with the district attorney’s office.

Officials often learn about human sex trafficking rings through prostitution complaints, Harris said. Without the ability to enforce laws against prostitution, bigger crimes are likely to be missed, she said.

Last month, San Francisco police rescued four children ages 13 to 17 and arrested four pimps and nine women as part of a sting operation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said Captain Al Pardini, head of the narcotics and vice crimes division. The joint effort rescued 47 juvenile sex workers nationwide.

Sex workers who report crimes are unlikely to be prosecuted, Pardini said. The district attorney’s office has sponsored legislation to crack down on violent crimes against prostitutes, Assistant Attorney General Lenore Anderson said in a public letter sent in July to the city’s director of elections, John Arntz.

“We look at the big picture of what’s going on,” Pardini said. “If they tell us, `Hey I was in the middle of a prostitution arrangement and suddenly I was attacked, sexually assaulted or physically beaten,’ that’s the serious issue in the whole big picture and we’re going to focus on that.”

The heart of the issue for sex workers is having a say in their work conditions, Doogan said.

The goal, she said, is “to be able to extend some fundamental rights to a whole class of workers that have been disenfranchised.”

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