A transgender woman of color named Monica Jones was convicted last week for walking down the street. The charge? “Manifestation of prostitution.” But Jones isn’t a sex worker. She just happens to live in Phoenix, Arizona, where a new tactic to reduce sex work provides new opportunities for police to profile vulnerable populations.
While Jones’ conviction is fully legal in Phoenix, it’s become a rallying cry for trans rights issues, since it so clearly illustrated biases ingrained in the law. Here’s a break down of all the elements that led to Jones’ arrest:
“Manifestation Of Prostitution”
One of the first problems is the incredibly vague way that Phoenix’s law against prostitution actually defines what constitutes an arrest-worthy offense. In addition to literally offering or soliciting prostitution, the law also enumerates a number of actions that can constitute an “intent” to break the law:
Is in a public place, a place open to public view or in a motor vehicle on a public roadway and manifests an intent to commit or solicit an act of prostitution. Among the circumstances that may be considered in determining whether such an intent is manifested are: that the person repeatedly beckons to, stops or attempts to stop or engage passersby in conversation or repeatedly, stops or attempts to stop, motor vehicle operators by hailing, waiving of arms or any other bodily gesture; that the person inquires whether a potential patron, procurer or prostitute is a police officer or searches for articles that would identify a police officer; or that the person requests the touching or exposure of genitals or female breast.
According to the law, it doesn’t matter if prostitution solicitation actually takes place; simply conveying one of these other actions constitutes a violation of the law. For example, a group of cheerleaders holding a carwash could be arrested under this law for trying to advertise their fundraiser by waving at passing cars.
Additionally, the law dictates that a first offense results in a mandatory minimum of 15 days in jail, up to a maximum of six months, as well as the possibility of a fine up to $2,500. The mandatory minimums increase significantly with each prior charge a person carries. These vague “manifestations” of prostitution thus create opportunity to entrap and punish individuals with prostitution charges even if they are not actually engaging in sex work.
The “Project ROSE” Diversion Program
Diversion programs offer sex workers an opportunity to avoid jail time by engaging in education and support opportunities instead. These programs might, for example, help individuals who have been arrested for prostitution work through issues related to trauma, abuse, or drug addiction while equipping them with legal guidance and financial literacy to help them move out of the circumstances that led them to engage in sex work. In addition to being a better use of time and resources than jail, this ideally helps the individuals avoid cycling back into sex work and perhaps back into the judicial system.
Phoenix developed its own diversion program called Project ROSE (Reaching Out to the Sexually Exploited), in collaboration with the Arizona State University (ASU) School of Social Work. Over the course of two weekends each year, police do a sweep of the streets and pick up anybody who might be suspected of sex work per the vague definitions in the laws. They are placed in handcuffs and brought to Bethany Bible Church, though the police claim that this custody is simply “contact” and that these individuals are not actually arrested. They are not allowed to contact a lawyer even though they are held against their will.
Any individuals with outstanding warrants or who are found in possession of drugs are automatically arrested. Of those remaining, they can choose between entering a diversion program run by Catholic Charities or facing criminal charges. Those who fail to complete the program, which can last as long as six months, face the same criminal charges.
SWOP-Phoenix, the city’s sex workers outreach program, opposes Project ROSE because it “harms sex workers.” By attempting to “save” sex workers, the group argues, the program ignores that some people were not forced into sex work, but turned to it to support themselves and their families. Stephanie Wahab and Meg Panichelli, social work professors at Portland State University, argue that social workers should not “be in the business of arresting people for their own good.” The Project ROSE sweeps may force more sex workers into the criminal justice system than the program actually saves; only about 30 percent complete the program, 10 percent of whom are re-arrested within the first year afterward.
How Sex Workers Are Profiled
Attempts to use the criminal justice system to combat sex work has led to a number of unusual forms of profiling against sex workers. For example, police in New York City and New Orleans have taken to arresting women for carrying condoms, citing them as evidence for intent to commit prostitution. Rather than minimize sex work, this has actually worsened the spread of HIV and other STDs in those cities.
Transgender women, particularly trans women of color, are also profiled as being sex workers. Because of the poverty brought on by overwhelming rates of employment and housing discrimination, many trans women turn to sex work to support themselves. As many as 43 percent of trans people have worked in the sex industry at some point in their lives. As a combination of these factors, trans women are particularly vulnerable to both suspicion of sex work (for being trans, then for being in possession of a condom) and criminal charges because of the vague components of the law. That’s what led Monica Jones to be convicted of “walking while trans.”
Monica Jones’ Arrest and Conviction
Monica Jones is a student at ASU’s School of Social Work, a sex worker rights advocate with SWOP, and a trans woman of color. When Phoenix police were conducting a Project ROSE sweep in May of 2013, Jones spoke at a community event against the program. The following evening, she was offered a ride home from a bar, only to be not-arrested by the undercover cop, who placed her in handcuffs and drove her to Bethany Bible Church. Jones, however, was not eligible for Project ROSE because of a prior prostitution conviction, despite no longer being a sex worker. Jones was charged with “manifestation of prostitution” and last week, she was convicted and sentenced to 30 days in a men’s prison.
The prosecution’s only witness was the arresting officer, who repeatedly referred to Jones with the male pronouns “he” and “him.” He alleged that she “exposed her breast,” though advocates for Jones suggest her only crime was asking if he was a police officer (knowing full well that Project ROSE sweeps were underway that weekend). The judge deliberated for less than one minute before handing down a guilty verdict. According to the ACLU, which helped represent Jones, the judge’s assumption that the officer’s testimony was credible while hers was hearsay is “erroneous and improper.”
During the time between her arrest and her trial, Jones says she was stopped by police on four more occasions while walking around her neighborhood and threatened with additional “manifestation of prostitution” charges. She explained to the ACLU how “walking while trans” has become a crime in and of itself:
JONES: “Walking while trans” is a saying we use in the trans community to refer to the excessive harassment and targeting that we as trans people experience on a daily basis. “Walking while trans” is a way to talk about the overlapping biases against trans people — trans women specifically — and against sex workers. It’s a known experience in our community of being routinely and regularly harassed and facing the threat of violence or arrest because we are trans and therefore often assumed to be sex workers.
I have been harassed by police four times since my initial arrest last May. The police have stopped me for no real reason when I have been walking to the grocery store, to the local bar, or visiting with a friend on the sidewalk. The police have even threatened me with ‘manifestation with intent to prostitute’ charge, while I was just walking to my local bar!
Police harassment of transgender people is not unusual even absent sex work profiling. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 29 percent of trans people have experienced police harassment or disrespect. Rates were much higher for people of color. Additionally, 46 percent of trans people report they are generally uncomfortable even seeking police assistance.
Jones has already filed an appeal and is continuing her fight.