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Sex Worker Outreach Project Joins Local Opposition To Controversial Condom Charges

Bebeto Matthews
An outreach worker at Boom Health Center packs condoms for distribution to sex workers in the Bronx. Then-Mayor Bill de Blasio declared in 2014 that NYC police would no longer confiscate unused condoms as evidence or instruments of crime.

Local health and social justice experts say the recent criminalization of condom possession discourages sex workers from practicing safe sex and could lead to a broader public health problem.

Possessing an instrument of crime under Pennsylvania law usually refers to weapons or body armor, but can include legal items used for criminal purposes. Data reported recently by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review show police in Allegheny County classified condoms as those instruments in one-third of prostitution cases reviewed last year.

“This is an abuse of police power. There’s no question about it,” said Sue Frietsche, staff attorney for the Women’s Law Project in Pittsburgh. “And it’s an abuse that’s being leveled at some of the most marginalized and powerless people in our society.”

Frietsche joined a small consortium this week at the Persad Center in Lawrenceville to discuss the relevant state statutes and contribute to a dissenting letter drafted by the American Civil Liberties Union. Organizers said they hope to present the letter to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala.

Jessie and PJ Sage, co-leaders for the local arm of the Sex Worker Outreach Project that hosted the event, said the cause will be among the group’s first to champion locally.

"For decades now, we've really been making a concerted effort to encourage the most vulnerable and most marginal populations to practice safer sex,” PJ said. “And this is something, a public health goal, that we've had for some time now. It's like a huge step backwards."

First offense prostitution is a low level misdemeanor resulting in a summons arrest, meaning the accused remains free and reports to court at a later date. Possessing an instrument is a more serious misdemeanor that calls for immediate detainment, fingerprinting and processing through a local jail.

Officers in other jurisdictions have argued that tacking on the additional possession charge can give the court greater leverage during plea negotiations. In some cases, alleged sex workers may feel that they have to take a hit on prostitution to escape a potentially more damning criminal record.

One attendee, who identified herself as Gabrielle Monroe, recounted her experience with police several years ago, when she said she was held for a time without an attorney after being charged with prostitution and possessing an instrument of crime (condoms). The experience made her fear keeping protection nearby, she said, lest they attract additional scrutiny by police.

“It wasn’t until days later when I was talking to my lawyer that it hit me. 'Are they actually saying that condoms are an instrument of crime?”' she said.

Monroe, a mother of four, said she's since made herself a resource for other young people engaging in sex work. Some share similar stories, she said, and many tell her they’d rather chance exposure to unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease if it means police won’t target them, too.

Frietsche likened the practice to Comstock laws of the 1870s, which prevented the widespread use of contraceptives for nearly 100 years.