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Lawmakers Approve Proposal To Allow Sex Workers To Expunge Past Felony Prostitution Convictions

The Illinois General Assembly this spring approved a proposal to allow sex workers’ criminal charges expunged from their records for convictions dating back to when prostitution was classified as a felony in Illinois.

Back in 2013, Illinois reduced a prostitution conviction down to a Class A misdemeanor. Despite no longer being considered a felony offense, a conviction can still carry a maximum fine of $2500 and up to nearly a year in jail.

The law, however, did not create a pathway for sex workers to expunge previous felony charges, something advocates like Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx wanted to change.

“Expunging felony records for a crime that is no longer considered a felony is an obvious step towards righting some of the wrongs of the past,” the Foxxs office said in a statement. “Having a criminal record creates dire consequences for a person – both personally and professionally – the Expungement Expansion and Equity Act is an important step to continuing our criminal justice reform efforts in Illinois.”

The proposal’s chief sponsor State Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago) said those past criminal records make it difficult for people to secure housing, employment, and other services.

“We felt that it was only fair, given the change that we made in 2013, that they should also get some kind of reprieve; an opportunity to correct the stigma or to mitigate the stigma that goes with sex workers,” Collins said.

The proposal initially called to also remove regular drug testing requirements for people seeking expungement, but was added back in when the proposal moved to the House.

“That was never a concern over on the Senate side, basically because in the wake of legalization of cannabis, we felt there should be no drug testing requirement,” Collins said.

However, Collins said facing a late-May choice between taking the mandate back out and seeing the bill stall as session winded down last month, she decided to go forward with the House version of the bill.

Collins also indicated an openness to further decriminalize sex work in Illinois, and even possibly go as far as to legalize prostitution and allow for government regulation

“I would have no problems in exploring that aspect further,” she said. “We know that the individual is very vulnerable, it becomes a very dangerous situation and it’s a form of exploitation, I think. And the burden of the criminality or punitive nature always fell on the sex worker and not the pimp or the person who is involved in human trafficking.”

Since 1971, Nevada has allowed counties with a population of less than 700,000 the option to legalize prostitution in a brothel setting if they so choose. Despite popular belief, prostitution is not legal in Las Vegas; Clark County, Nev. has not legalized sex work.

Other states have also seen recent attempts to significantly decriminalize sex work. During the spring legislative session in Louisiana, State Rep. Mandie Landry (D-New Orleans) introduced a proposal to completely decriminalize sex work in cases where adults are over 18 years old.

Landry said even though her hometown of New Orleans doesn’t prioritize arresting sex workers, other Louisiana counties — referred to as “parishes” — still conduct prostitution stings.

“Even though it's just a misdemeanor, you still get into the system, you still have to pay a lawyer, you still have something on your record, there's still, you know, risk of arrest,” Landry said. “So this would just remove the penalties and remove things like stings.”

Landry was able to build a coalition of support for her proposal made up of former and current sex workers, public health officials, and what she described as the “Black feminist-led organization,” Women with a Vision. She said she was surprised during the process how many people in government supported her efforts.

“It was actually interesting that people who — and I’m talking about members and other people who work in the Capitol — who came up to me, in particular women of all ages and races, who said ‘I'm really happy you're doing this, the government needs to stop policing women's bodies,’ even though we know it's people of all genders who engage in sex work,” Landry said.

“But for women in particular, this kind of hit home and they would say things like ‘Sometimes you have to do what you have to do to support yourself or your kids,’ and I thought that was very interesting,” she continued. “I wasn't expecting so many people to be quietly supportive.”

The proposal, however, did not end up getting called for a vote on the House floor due to overwhelming concern it would lead to full legalization — something Landry said her stakeholders were not advocating for and didn’t support.

“Outside of, say, New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport — well, parts of Shreveport — the state is very conservative, and in the northern part of the state it's extremely Christian conservative,” Landry said. “There was a lot of people, I think, who just didn't want to hear it or were like just appalled that I was bringing this.”

Although Illinois lawmakers have not introduced a similar proposal, Sen. Collins was able to successfully pass two other initiatives that seek to address anti-human trafficking strategies.

SB 1599 would create a human trafficking taskforce charged with recommending policy actions on subjects ranging from better data collection and sharing to changing law enforcement training.

SB 1600 would mandate education training for restaurant and truck stop employees in order to better identify signs of human trafficking.

All three of Collins’ proposals will head to Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk where they may be signed into law later this year.

Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.

Derek Cantù is NPR Illinois' graduate student Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2021 legislative session.