On October 7, 2014, the District of Columbia Council voted on a bill to repeal the District’s “Prostitution Free Zones” law as well as the “Drug Free Zones” law that it was based on. After an initial unanimous vote, the Council revisited the topic at the request of Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) who claimed that the Prostitution Free Zones (PFZs) were an important tool to address concerns about sex work in neighborhoods she represents, despite testimony from police that the PFZs have not been used for over two years. “The Prostitution Free Zones have had a major impact on prostitution,” said Councilmember Alexander. The Metropolitan Police Department had stated at previous hearings that police were no longer using the law due to the concerns about its constitutionality as well as lack of evidence that the PFZs were effective in reducing street-based sex work in areas where the zones were declared. While acknowledging the constitutional concerns regarding the PFZs, Councilmember Alexander asked her colleagues to vote against repeal on the grounds that she felt there are reasons to implement the zones.
The D.C. Council passed the law authorizing police to declare PFZs in 2006 over objections from community members who said the zones would legitimize long-standing discriminatory police practices. Community-based research by the Alliance for a Safe and Diverse D.C. revealed the negative effects of D.C.’s approach to sex work, and a more recent review of police-community relations by the MPD-appointed Hate Crimes Response Task Force found high levels of distrust of police among transgender communities in the city, due to patterns of discrimination and abuse. Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) introduced the bill to repeal the PFZs in response to the Task Force report and accompanying recommendations by community groups.
Chairman of the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) pointed out that the zones are not being used by the police, and that to say to constituents that the zones would help address prostitution would be a false statement. Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) asked why Councilmember Wells wanted to repeal the law, “Why do you want to repeal this? We have a lot of laws that we don’t use, why do you want to remove this one?” Councilmember Wells pointed out how the PFZs discriminate against trans communities or people based on what they are wearing and being with two people or more. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Chairman of the Council, Phil Mendelson (D-Chairman), claimed that the PFZs were effective, but that the law must be repealed because of the constitutional concerns. “As much as some of us would like for them to come back,” said Chairman Mendelson, “because I think there was value in the police using it to disrupt prostitution markets, it cannot be used. It is unconstitutional.” But Councilmember Grosso noted that the constitutional concerns are not the only reason for repeal. “This is also about human rights in the District of Columbia,” said Grosso. “These zones were used not necessarily to address prostitution or sex work, but to discriminate against people walking down the street that we didn’t want walking down the street.”
After a period of debate which rehashed stigmatizing arguments regarding sex work, the Council voted 10-2 to repeal the Prostitution Free Zones law. All laws under consideration by the full Council must be voted on twice–a second vote on the bill will be taken on October 28th, but in light of the vote tally, it is likely to pass. Although a largely symbolic gesture, since the police have already acknowledged not using the zones for the past two years and no plans to use them in the future, the debate over the bill shows the importance of removing laws targeting sex workers, and those profiled as such, for increased criminalization. Best Practices Policy Project, which assisted the Alliance for a Safe and Diverse D.C. in its community-based research in 2007 and 2008, applauds this step forward for D.C. and encourages the D.C. Council to consider implementing other recommendations from that report.