Vt. lawmaker says decriminalizing prostitution will keep sex workers safe

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) Prostitution is something many people may not see or hear about often in our region, but it does happen. Now, a group of Vermont lawmakers is pushing to decriminalize it in an effort to keep sex workers safe.

Vermont State Police have made fewer than 20 prostitution arrests since 2014, but some lawmakers say it's not about how common prostitution is. "This is something that happens all over the country and Vermont is not a place where it's not happening," said Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington.

Prostitution is illegal on the federal level and in almost every state, including Vermont, where it is a misdemeanor. Only in a few Nevada counties has sex work been decriminalized. And under Colburn's proposal, Vermont could join them. "Does consensual sex between adults on any terms need to be criminalized?" questioned Colburn.

Colburn, who introduced a bill with the support of three other women lawmakers, believes if the state decriminalized prostitution, it could help some sex workers avoid becoming a victim of human trafficking. "If sex workers of any gender aren't afraid of prosecution if they come forward with concerns about more coercive conditions, they're going to be much more willing to come forward," Colburn said.

Another bill would establish a good Samaritan law where sex workers could come forward to police with information about a crime without having to fear prosecution for their prostitution. Advocates say the criminalization of sex work doesn't prevent it from happening, it only creates conditions that are unsafe. Even the World Health Organization says decriminalizing sex work could lead to a reduction in new HIV infections.

"There have been many studies that show for sex workers, it cuts down on violence, it increases public health outcomes," Colburn said.

But Vermont's chief juvenile defender, Marshall Pahl, believes decriminalization and a good Samaritan law isn't enough to prevent sex trafficking or to use it as a means to escape. He equates it to those who call in about drug overdoses and how they are unaware they are shielded from prosecution.

"My experience and the experience of lawyers I have talked to, of people who have represented those people, is they had no idea there is a good Samaritan statute and that they were protected," Pahl said.

There has been a nationwide movement to push for the decriminalization of sex work.

Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders says it is certainly something that should be considered.

WCAX News reached out to other leading Democratic candidates for president and the president's team to hear their stance, but we did not hear back before this story was published.

There is a difference between decriminalizing prostitution and legalizing it. Decriminalization means there will be no arrests made or charges brought if someone is caught engaging in prostitution-- basically no punishment in Vermont-- but there will be no law on the books proclaiming that prostitution is legal here.