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Sex Work, Violence and Incarceration

Undeniable Intersections

Violence and incarceration are realities for people who trade sex. Fear of having police encounters - fear of being arrested - fear of being assaulted or exploited and not having anywhere to turn - are things that are often spoken of as a side not but not fully explored. No one questions these intersections, but sometimes violence can look very different from inside prison or jail.

Many of our incarcerated members are in prison and doing time for violent charges. This is shocking for many people. It can be jarring - if you live outside our “bubble of advocacy” to incarcerated people - to see someone's criminal past listed below a mugshot with release dates that are far into the future…or even serving a life sentence.

Sex Workers are overpoliced and targeted for arrest. We know this is true. But sex workers are also stigmatized by the criminal justice system with impunity. So lets take a second and apply what we already know about our societal and institutional structures and the many ways sex workers are impacted by these broken systems.

The United States currently incarcerates 2.2 million people, nearly half of whom are non-violent drug offenders, accused people held pre-trial because they cannot afford their bail, and others who have been arrested for failure to pay debts or fines for minor infractions. Poverty and excessive legal punishments contribute significantly to the United States’ high rate of imprisonment, which has disproportionately affected low-income and minority populations. Without reducing poverty—and more specifically, income inequality—as well as racial bias and rolling back harsh sentences for certain crimes, the United States will not meaningfully reduce its prison population. These policy changes have disproportionately affected low-income and minority populations, who now make up roughly three-fifths and two-thirds of the prison population, respectively.

More than 97 percent of federal criminal convictions are obtained through plea bargains, and the states are not far behind at 94 percent. American prosecutors are equipped with a fearsome array of tools they can use to extract confessions and discourage people from exercising their right to a jury trial. And because we are disproportionately arresting and charging people who are poor, the affordability of a jury trial is not a reality. Innocent people are regularly coerced into pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit. Even the Supreme Court has observed, “American criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.”

"Mandatory minimums" are minimum sentences that Congress has attached to certain crimes. There are over 150 of these throughout federal criminal law. Many relating to drug crimes — can have devastating consequences for people's lives. Mandatory minimum sentences reduce the sentencing discretion of judges, create racial disparities, and give prosecutors too much leverage, which they can use to strong-arm defendants out of their constitutional rights and force them to plead to harsh sentences. Since the mid-1970s, state and federal legislators have passed laws creating draconian sentencing and parole schemes designed to keep ever-increasing numbers of people in prison for decades. These policies force judges to issue severe sentences regardless of individual factors meriting leniency, and three-strikes laws, which expand the number of crimes subject to life and life-without-parole sentences. These policies have increased the number of people imprisoned and the lengths of their imprisonments, as well as limited opportunities for release, causing the population of federal and state prisoners to soar.

The War on Drugs are little more than a war on poor people and a war on people of color. Of the 2.2 million currently being held in the U.S. criminal justice system, nearly 500,000 people are being held for drug offenses, the majority of whom were arrested for simple possession, a non-violent crime. The current approach to the war on drugs disproportionately and dramatically affects the world’s poorest men, women and children and fails to improve life for the most vulnerable. The legacy of the war on drugs illustrates the danger of creating policies that seek to satisfy political frenzy ahead of basic human needs.

​​One-fourth of all those incarcerated in the United States are being held pre-trial, primarily because they cannot afford to pay bail. Most states require people to pay a cash bail in order to be released from jail while they await their turn in court. Across the country, there are nearly three times as many people being held by local jails who have not been convicted of a crime as have. Nearly three-fourths of individuals held pre-trial have been accused of low-level drug or property crimes or other non-violent crimes.

A study from the National Law Center of Homelessness and Poverty examining laws related to homelessness in 187 cities across the United States reveals a significant increase in laws criminalizing various behaviors relating to homelessness, such as bans on sleeping, sitting, or lying down in public; sleeping in your vehicle; begging; and loitering. Nine percent of cities have even outlawed sharing food with homeless people. People who are under-housed or homeless are easy prey for the criminal justice initiatives that penalize societal problems instead of addressing them first and prioritizing basic human needs.

32% of the US population is represented by Black and Brown people, compared to 56% of the US incarcerated population being represented by Black and Brown people. In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population. Black people are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites. The imprisonment rate for Black Women women is 2x that of white women. Nationwide, Black and Brown children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court. African American children represent 14% of the population. 7% of adults in the US are under correctional supervision. That equates to one out of every 37 adults in the United States.

Recent studies have shown that about 20% of prison inmates have a serious mental illness, and 30% to 60% have substance abuse problems. Individuals being incarcerated have more severe types of mental illness, including psychotic disorders and major mood disorders than in the past. Across the nation, individuals with severe mental illness are three times more likely to be in a jail or prison than in a mental health facility and 40 percent of individuals with a severe mental illness will have spent some time in their lives in either jail, prison, or community corrections. We can safely say there is no doubt that our jails and prisons have become America’s major mental health facilities, a purpose for which they were never intended.

The majority of ALL incarcerated offenders have likely experienced some type of childhood abuse or neglect. Childhood sexual abuse is probably more prevalent among inmates than among the general population. The percentage of prisoners who report a history of childhood sexual abuse is higher than those reported by other studies for non-incarcerated individuals. Even professionals in the criminal justice field believe that a significant number of incarcerated people may have been victims of sexual, psychological and/or emotional abuse. This in no way absolves them from responsibility - but it certainly is worth exploring.

Our criminal justice system is broken on many fronts. The most basic pathology of America’s criminal justice system is that it vastly exceeds the scope of what a criminal justice system may legitimately seek to address while routinely using force against peaceful people in morally indefensible ways. American police and prosecutors wield extraordinary power over the lives of others—including even the power of life and death—and are also the least accountable people on the planet. Combine that pathology with people who trade sex regularly being denied basic human rights, and it is a recipe for disaster. And if it can't be fixed - it must be abolished.

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