Criminalization of women in the sex trade

The traditional law-enforcement centered approach to a woman in the street-based sex trade is to arrest her and book her into jail, where she will be released in a matter of hours or days. Milwaukee police can also issue a woman a municipal ticket for loitering/prostitution — a $398 fine. The ticket often goes unpaid and then turns into a bench warrant. Municipal citations and criminal records are public and they will be used against her when seeking employment and housing.  Nothing is done to address the reasons why she is trading sex in the first place. The cycle continues.

In fact, the revolving door of arrest and jail time can make it harder for people committing survival crimes like trading sex to achieve stability. According to a 2019 report from the New York City health department, the data show that involvement with the criminal justice system — even brief contact with the police or indirect exposure — is associated with lasting harm to people’s physical and mental health.  
Read the Report

Women in the street-based sex trade face high levels of physical and sexual assault, abusive relationships and sex trafficking. Criminal charges don’t lead to more safety for women. A recent report from the Medical College of Wisconsin finds that “police don’t have the means to distinguish sex trafficking victims …” (Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin Endowment 2020 Annual Report).

On the other hand, police officers explain they receive calls and complaints from residents, businesses and elected officials about the street-based sex trade, which is visible. Women trading sex are easy scapegoats for many crime, health and safety issues in the neighborhood. Drug dealing, drug use, theft, loitering, traffic, noise and litter are also attributed to women in the sex trade, even when other actors are involved.

Police are often called as first line responders to address complex social issues. They receive calls to “do something” but the police cannot solve these issues alone.


Pre-arrest Diversion

Pre-arrest diversion programs offer law enforcement, the community and women another option. Public health systems like housing first and harm reduction-based services tailored to help women in the street-based sex trade are the solutions we need.  As a community we can establish pre-arrest diversion policy to refer women to voluntary services instead of arrests.  This effective solution helps individuals, families and communities to be healthier and safer.

MPOWER (Milwaukee Providing Opportunities for Wellness, Empowerment & Recovery) is a new cross-sector collaboration to create a pre-arrest diversion policy for women in the street based sex trade who use opioids and other drugs to be voluntarily referred for services with a focus on housing first and harm reduction services.  It is administered by the Milwaukee County Housing Division who was awarded a 3 year grant from the US DOJ Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Benedict Center plays a key leadership role in MPOWER.

The core planning team currently includes the Milwaukee County Housing Division, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, the Milwaukee Police Department, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Southside Organizing Committee, and the Benedict Center. 

The MPOWER project recognizes that change is a process and not an immediate transformation for women who are victims of gender-based violence, including sex trafficking, women with substance use disorders, complex trauma, and homelessness. We know that we need to meet women where they are and walk with them for the long-term.

Community support is necessary for a shift from criminalizing women to providing housing and treatment.  MPOWER is seeking meaningful engagement with residents and other stakeholders in the most affected neighborhoods. 

Learn more about the Sisters Program