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Thursday, March 6, 2014

The cost of keeping prostitution illegal

Prostitution and economics
Municipal anti-prostitution budgets average $7.5 million/year
By Andrew M. Weisberg

Sex is a basic human need. Some do it for pleasure, others for procreation. A lot of people engage in sexual activity to deepen the relationship with their partner and increase intimacy; some do it out of duty. And many have sex to earn a living.

Trading sex for money is referred to as the “oldest profession in the world.” Prostitutes, the pimps they work for and the clients who use their services are engrained in the fabric of almost every nation in the world, dating back to the third millennium B.C. For many centuries, the sex trade was a respectable, even honorable profession, and prostitutes enjoyed a high status as “entertainers.” After America started regulating this industry (almost 100 years ago), prostitution was outlawed and those who offered or received sex services started being arrested, shamed and labeled “criminals.”

Although in the last decade, the rate of arrests for prostitution and commercialized vice at the national level has dropped considerably – from 80,854 in 2001 to 62,668 in 2010, the cost of prostitution law enforcement is still tremendous. First of all, prostitution law enforcement policies waste manpower that could be deployed against actual criminals – each prostitution arrest takes a police officer off the streets for several hours, after which most arrestees are free to go right back to work.

The only report analyzing the cost of prostitution control was conducted in the 1980s and revealed that the average arrest, court and incarceration fees amount to approximately $2,000 per arrestee. Cities spend an average of $7.5 million on prostitution law enforcement, with budgets ranging from $1 million to $23 million. The report concluded that keeping prostitution illegal costs tax-payers significantly more than legalizing it.

As the only jurisdiction in the United States that licensed prostitution and brothels, Nevada offers a good example of how prostitution can benefit state budgets. Although brothels in Nevada don’t pay state taxes, the income of sex workers is taxable once hired at a brothel.

According to a study, an individual working for a Nevada brothel just one week per month has an average annual income of nearly $100,000, of which more than $20,000 is calculated as the federal income tax. Since prostitution in America is an $18 billion industry, economists sustain that the government would earn about $6 billion in federal income taxes, and another $2 billion in licensing fees.
The average career length of prostitutes is 4 years
1% of all American women have worked as prostitutes

Legalization, a Constant Debate 

Prostitution is largely regarded as a “victimless crime” by the proponents of legalizing prostitution, since theoretically, none of the parties involved in the criminal act are unwilling.

It is claimed that prostitution is a harmless act, one without long-term consequences for society, and that criminalization’s only effect is to increase crime rates by keeping the trade violent and illegal. Furthermore, those for legalization sustain that current laws against prostitution do more harm than good when it comes to sexually-transmitted diseases: if prostitution were legalized, the government could enforce health regulations in the best interest of both the worker and the client.

Prostitution is a risky career choice
Many prostitutes seek to exit the industry
There is, however, another side to prostitution. While the media paints a sophisticated image of the sex trade – with business taking place in luxurious apartments and consumed during steamy, passionate scenes – this representation is often far from the brutal reality of human trafficking, child abuse, sexual assault, homelessness and substance abuse. Although prostitution is seen as a voluntary choice, the vast majority of women in this line of work are desperate to leave it.

Statistics reports that 1 percent of all American women have worked as prostitutes at some point, with an average career length of four years. At the moment, one million women and girls sell sexual services, most of which (90 percent) suffered childhood abuse, rape and incest. In the course of working in prostitution, 82% are physically assaulted, and 83% are threatened with a weapon. Nearly 70 percent have been raped since entering the trade, and many of them (84 percent) were or are currently homeless.

Prostitution on the Streets of Chicago

A 2007 study titled “An Empirical Analysis of Street-Level Prostitution” examining the economics of the Chicago prostitution industry concluded that there are 4,400 prostitutes working on the streets of Chicago on an average week. Surprisingly, pimps are the ones establishing and maintaining the law and order on the streets of Chicago – since a prostitute is more likely to have sex with a police officer than get arrested by one.

They are protected and paid efficiency wages, while johns match them with paying customers and keep them out of vulnerable zones. While prostitutes in South Africa earn no more than $1 per hour, the average Chicago sex worker has a profit of $25/hour, while the high-class escorts are worth up to $10,000.

Some efforts are already being made by authorities to end felony arrests for prostitution and reduce prison overcrowding. At Cook County Jail in Chicago, there were 127 prostitution arrests made in 2012, costing more than $2 million. It is estimated that County Cook spends between $5 million and $9.5 million per year to keep an individual facing prostitution charges in jail. As one of the seven states that still treat prostitution as a felony and the only one that convicts a defendant after one offense, Illinois has some of the stiffest penalties for prostitution in the nation.

Apparently, keeping prostitution outside the law brings only losses, but there is one category that benefits from the current state of affairs: prostitutes themselves, together with their johns. Illegality has allowed the implementation of a cartel culture – causing wages to increase and keeping competitors out. On the other hand, they willingly submit to a world of violence and crime, being 18 and more likely to be murdered than non-prostitutes of the same age and race.

One thing’s for sure: no one has real benefits from keeping prostitution outside the law. Aside from the fact that the government is missing out on billions in income taxes and wasting resources that could be used to apprehend the truly dangerous criminals, it also keeps sex workers captive in the grim, degrading life of prostitution. For most of them, legalization would ensure a decent wage, a much safer work environment, and freedom from discrimination.


About the author:  Andrew M. Weisberg is a criminal defense attorney in Chicago, Illinois. A former prosecutor in Cook County, Mr. Weisberg is a member of the Capital Litigation Trial Bar, an elite group of criminal attorneys who are certified by the Illinois Supreme Court to try death penalty cases. He is also a member of the Federal Trial Bar. Mr. Weisberg is a sole practitioner at the Law Offices of Andrew M. Weisberg.

Image licenses: Ravalejo, CC BY-SA 3.0 ; 2. Gerait, US-PD; 3. Dualdflipflop, CC BY 2.0