Respect Equality

California governor rolls back law criminalizing ‘loitering for the intent to engage in sex work’

Opponents of the law have long criticized it for discriminating against transgender women and women of color.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom outlines his 2022-2023 state budget revision during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, May 13, 2022. Rich Pedroncelli/ AP

Story at a glance

  • Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday signed into law the Safer Streets for All Act, which decriminalizes loitering in a public place with the “intent” to engage in sex work.

  • Newsom clarified that prostitution in California is still illegal and warned that the state must be “cautious” in how the new measure is implemented.

  • Current and former sex workers and LGBTQ+ advocates have long criticized loitering offenses for targeting the transgender community and communities of color.

California governor Gavin Newsom (D) has signed into law legislation shielding people from arrests related to loitering with the “intent” to engage in sex work — arrests that have in the past disproportionately affected transgender women and women of color in the state.

The Safer Streets for All Act repeals a provision of the state’s prostitution law that prohibited “loitering in a public place” for the purpose of sex work. The legislation also allows a person convicted of loitering to petition a trial court for the dismissal and sealing of their case, as well as resentencing, if applicable.

In a signing statement Friday, Newsom clarified that prostitution in California is still illegal. The new law repeals only the loitering offense that targets people for “appearing” to be sex workers.

“To be clear, this bill does not legalize prostitution,” he wrote. “It simply revokes provisions of the law that have led to disproportionate harassment of women and transgendered adults. While I agree with the author’s intent and I am signing this legislation, we must be cautious about its implementation.”

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Newsom added that his administration will be monitoring crime and prosecution trends for “any possible unintended consequences,” which it will act to mitigate.

The measure, introduced last February, was passed by the California legislature in September, but its transmittal to the governor’s desk was delayed by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Scott Wiener (D), until late June.

In introducing the legislation, Wiener referenced crime statistics from Los Angeles which showed that Black adults accounted for just over 56 percent of loitering charges between 2017 and 2019, despite making up less than 10 percent of the city’s population.

Loitering charges have also disproportionately affected transgender women, earning similar provisions in other states the moniker of “walking while trans” laws. Former New York governor Andrew Cuomo (D) last year repealed the state’s anti-loitering law, citing violence against transgender women.

“We’re experiencing a terrifying epidemic of violence against trans women of color, and we need to be proactive in improving their safety,” Wiener said in a statement introducing the bill. “Our laws should protect the LGBTQ community and communities of color, and not criminalize sex workers, trans people and Brown and Black people for quite literally walking around or dressing in a certain way.”

On Friday, Wiener commended Newsom for backing the measure, which was co-sponsored by a coalition of current and former sex workers and LGBTQ+ advocates from the Positive Women’s Network — USA, St. James Infirmary, the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Los Angeles, the Trans Latin@ Coalition, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California.

“Thank you Governor for once again showing that Californians stand with the LGBTQ community and communities of color,” Wiener wrote in a message on Twitter. “This discriminatory law targeted and profiled Black, Brown [and] trans women. It needed to go.”

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