After hearings and meetings that saw standing room only crowds and threats of electoral challenges, the final vote to approve Ald. Jason Ervin’s (28th) ordinance that would impose penalties on loitering for prostitutes and their johns was fairly low-key.
The ordinance was unanimously approved during the June 20 Chicago City Council meeting by a routine vote. By that point, the meeting already went for almost five hours, and even Ervin was eager to simply approve it as quickly as possible, making a short speech about how he appreciated his colleagues and the city’s help with working out the details.
But the ordinance that was approved differed from what Ervin originally introduced in two important respects. In response to concerns that this would hurt prostitutes and victims of sex trafficking, the revised ordinance decreased fines and reduced penalties for the prostitutes themselves while increasing the penalties for the johns.
The ordinance also specified that victims of sex trafficking could use the fact that they were forced into prostitution as a defense if they are arrested.
The original version of Ervin’s ordinance states that prostitutes or johns caught loitering for prostitution-related reasons would face either a fine between $100 and $500, a jail sentence of up to six months, up to 120 hours of community service or some combination of any of the three.
Since then, the ordinance went through several revisions. The version that went before the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety on June 22 made a distinction between prostitutes and johns when it comes to punishments. For prostitutes, the minimum fine was reduced to $50 and the ordinance emphasized that community service was an alternative to a fine and/or jail time rather than something that could be imposed in addition to those penalties.
For the johns, the fines increased to between $1,000 and $1,750. In addition, the ordinance specified that the fines would go up for each subsequent offense. Otherwise, the penalties for johns remained the same.
During the June 22 meeting, Ervin said that, after speaking to advocates for sex workers and victims of sex trafficking, he was persuaded that the focus shouldn’t be on going after prostitutes. And besides, he said, going after johns made sense.
“I believe this is an issue of supply and demand, and at this point, we really want to focus on the demand side of the equation,” Ervin said. “If the demand isn’t there to purchase service, supply has to move elsewhere.”
Tina Skahill, the deputy director of the Chicago Police Department’s Office of General Counsel, told the committee that penalizing prostitutes too much would actually make the situation worse.
“We also recognize that excessive fines and penalties may force women and other [prostitutes] into a vicious cycle, forcing them into prostitution to pay fines,” she said. “This is why this ordinance lowers fines.
As an alternative, CPD wants to try to direct women to “diversionary programs.” The idea isn’t just to help the victims of sex-trafficking, but to help people who were engaged in prostitution in order to, for example, pay bills or have a place to stay.
‘We recognize that, if a woman isn’t coerced into prostitution, [engaging in prostitution] isn’t necessarily a choice,” she said.
Skahill also noted that CPD doesn’t believe that Ervin’s ordinance would, by itself, resolve the issue of loitering; rather, it would give the officers “another tool to solve this problem.”
Kathy Allison, the executive director of United for Better Living, a West Garfield Park-based social service provider, said that prostitution has been an acute issue in the area, which was particularly troublesome since they’re trying to operate day camps for kids. At the same time, Allison said that she knew those women may need help.
“I was able to take the young ladies and start their ife over,” she said, adding that United for Better Living offers services such as help with getting GEDs.
Several speakers at the June 22 meeting argued that part of the problem was that the officers don’t consistently enforce the ordinances that are already on the books.
Zyonna Bragg, a 24th Ward resident and a staffer at Target Area Development Corporation, asked who was “policing the police.”
“Who is making sure they do their job?” she asked. “This prostitution ordinance kind of make me think about it — we need police to be assisting more.”
Lt. Patrick O’Malley,of CPD’s vice section, said that, on the West Side, the department has a prostitution team and a human trafficking team.
“Our officers [talk] with the girls on a daily basis, letting them know they have social services available to them,” he said.
Megan Rosenfeld, the policy director at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, urged the aldermen to delay the vote on the ordinance, saying that her organization has been working with the city on a more comprehensive solution to the issue of prostitution and sex trafficking.
She said that sending the ordinance to the full council for approval would interfere with the organization’s work. She also said that penalizing prostitutes and johns under the same ordinance, even if the penalties for the former were reduced, was unfair.
“[That would] imply that those selling sex are the danger,” Rosenfeld said. ‘People who are selling sex are typically victims [of] abusive partners, substance addiction. Arresting them doesn’t solve that.”
“We need to make sure victims have resources to build better lives [instead of] arresting them.” Rosenfeld said.
Ervin countered that, while he understood the points raised, Rosenfeld didn’t see the issue from his constituents’ perspective. He described the ordinance as a measure that struck a balance between helping prostitutes and helping residents “who have been inundated with challenges for 20, 30 even 40 years.”
The committee voted unanimously to send the ordinance to the council, where it was approved by a routine vote.