By DON THOMPSON, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California lawmakers finally sent Gov. Gavin Newsom a hot potato on Monday of a bill that would ban police from making arrests for loitering for prostitution, nine months after the adoption of the measure by the Legislative Assembly.

Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener and other supporters said arrests for loitering with the intent to engage in prostitution are often based on police perceptions and disproportionately target transgender, black and Latino women.

Critics see it as a further erosion of criminal penalties that tie the hands of police on quality-of-life issues like shoplifting and car break-ins. Greg Burt, spokesman for the California Family Council, and other opponents fear it is part of a possible effort to decriminalize prostitution.

“This bill seems to be perfect if you want sex trafficking to increase even in California,” he said. “This bill is really going to affect poor neighborhoods – it won’t affect the neighborhoods where these lawmakers live.”

political cartoons

The bill would not decriminalize soliciting or the practice of sex work. This would allow those who have already been convicted or are currently serving sentences for vagrancy to ask a court to throw out and seal the record of the conviction.

The measure passed both legislative houses, but Wiener took the unusual step of blocking the bill from going to Newsom after the Assembly approved the measure in September with no votes to spare. More than two dozen of his fellow Democrats in the House and Senate voted no or refused to vote.

He wanted time, Wiener said then, “to explain why this civil rights bill is good policy…and why this discriminatory vagrancy crime goes against California values.”

The Senate finally sent the bill to Newsom on Monday.

But in the nine months since lawmakers acted, concerns about crime, homelessness and the perception that California’s big cities are becoming increasingly dangerous have grown more acute, fueling political campaigns at the November elections are approaching.

Among the bill’s supporters is San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who voters just recalled from his midterm duties after critics launched a campaign calling him soft on criminals.

Newsom, a Democrat running for re-election after easily rebuffing a recall last year, said more needs to be done to tackle homelessness and shoplifting. Spokespersons for Newsom did not immediately comment on Wiener’s bill.

Burt believes lawmakers waited to send him to Newsom until the governor defeated the recall and safely passed the June 7 primary election.

The bill is sponsored in part by groups supporting gay and transgender rights, and Wiener said he waited to send the measure to Newsom until Pride Month, which celebrates the LGTBQ community.

“It’s more important than ever to get rid of a law that targets our community,” said Wiener, who is gay. “Pride isn’t just about rainbow flags and parades. It’s about protecting the most marginalized in our community.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the nation’s largest such agency, and the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which has 75,000 members, are among the opponents. Both say its repeal will make it harder to prosecute those who commit crimes related to prostitution and human trafficking and make it harder to identify and help victims.

In a statement to lawmakers, the sheriff’s department said the law is “often used to prevent prostitutes from hanging out in public places, businesses and residential communities, which can breed crime and drug use.”

While the intention is good, the unintended consequences will benefit sex buyers, the department said.

But Wiener said the loitering law “essentially allows law enforcement to target and arrest people if they’re wearing tight clothes or a lot of makeup.” Similar legislation took effect in New York last year, and Wiener listed her bill as part of a broader movement to end discrimination and violence against sex workers.

The debate has divided sex workers and advocates, with the American Civil Liberties Union of California supporting it and the nonpartisan National Center on Sexual Exploitation opposing it.

Once he officially reaches his desk, Newsom will have 12 days to sign or veto the measure.

Two other related measures already have the force of law.

A bill passed in 2016 prohibits the arrest of minors for prostitution, with the intention that they will instead be treated as victims. A 2019 bill prohibits the arrest of sex workers if they report various crimes as a victim or witness. The same law prohibits using the possession of condoms as grounds for arrest.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.