YANG SONG, a prostitute, worked in a massage parlour in Queens, New York. A Chinese immigrant, she was worried that her record of multiple arrests would block her path to citizenship and was reportedly saving up to get out of the business. One evening in late 2017, during a police raid from which she was apparently trying to escape, Ms Song fell four storeys from a balcony. She died the next morning. The Queens district attorney found no evidence of wrongdoing by the police.

In New York, as in most of America, selling sex is illegal and stories abound of the costs of criminalisation. Sex workers circle in and out of the criminal justice system for years. Their criminal records often prevent them from accessing housing and other kinds of work. Paying bail bonds puts many already impoverished sex workers into debt.

On June 10th, New York introduced the first state-wide package of bills to decriminalise sex work. It would remove criminal penalties related to the buying and selling of sex and regulate workers’ place of business to make them safer. It would also allow sex workers to apply for criminal records connected to sex work to be expunged.

The bill is unlikely to pass any time soon. It has many opponents, among them Gloria Steinem and the Catholic church. Critics worry that decriminalisation will encourage trafficking and offences against minors, though laws against those offences would remain untouched. But Richard Gottfried, chair of New York state assembly’s health committee says its introduction is nonetheless a historic step and reflects a growing movement for decriminalisation. “Trying to stop sex work between consenting adults should not be the business of the criminal justice system”, he says.

One of the biggest benefits of illegalisation is that it allows sex workers to more easily report crimes of which they are the victims. Activists in New York say that prostitutes tend to be hesitant about telling the police if they are attacked or raped for fear they themselves will be arrested. Meredith Dank, a research professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says New York’s bill “gives them a voice. They can speak out”.

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The push to decriminalize Sex Work in New York by R.W

June 19th, 2019