New York's New Prostitution Law

Tuesday, 08 May 2012 12:00 PM

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In a May 3 article in The New York Times, Russ Buettner discussed the world’s oldest profession and a new approach to dealing with it in New York.

The article reported, "In a stark departure from decades of such prosecutions [only against the women], the women who were working as prostitutes are not facing criminal charges but are instead being treated as their pimps’ victims, and offered services to help them build new lives."

The new law in New York increases sentences for pimps to up to 25 years and for "the customers who pay adult prostitutes for sex face up to one year in jail, up from 90 days."

When I became mayor on Jan. 1, 1978, one of the quality-of-life issues in the city was street prostitution, which was taking place in many residential neighborhoods. The people in those communities were enraged.

A new Prostitution Law in New York increases sentences for pimps and johns.
Times Square, once a haven for prostitution and pornography, has been transformed into a family-friendly entertainment and shopping destination.
(Getty Images)
I proposed that the city publish the names of the "Johns" who were found guilty after trial. I directed that the list of those names on a monthly basis be sent to the media and that WNYC — owned at the time by the City of New York — would read the names on the air.

Of course, I was vilified for this policy by many in the media and cultural world. Joyce Purnick of the Times, on Nov. 9, 1979, reported the reaction by the media to my request, "The New York Times did not print the names.

Seymour Topping, managing editor of the Times said at the time: ‘We have never routinely published the names of people convicted of misdemeanors. We have no reason at this time to alter our policy.’ The New York Post, which had said it would publish the names only if they were newsworthy, did not do so."

She went on, "District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau of Manhattan said he thought publicizing the names had been ‘helpful,’ and he said he hoped the broadcasts would be aired regularly. Told there had been no new broadcasts, Mr. Morgenthau, whose office provided the original list of names to the news media, said, "I didn’t realize that. I never listen to WNYC."

The Times editorially denounced the idea and me, stating on Oct. 26, 1979: "This week’s premiere of Mayor Koch’s ‘John Hour’ which broadcast the names of nine convicted customers of prostitutes, was a shabby show, in no way redeemed by its brevity. It took only about a minute for city-employed announcers to read the names over city-owned radio and television stations. But it was a mighty misuse of government power. Such performances certainly won’t overcome the deficiency the mayor thinks he discerns in city judges — that they are soft on ‘johns.’

"A judge who actually is reluctant to punish such offenders would only be more so now that he knows the mayor will compound any punishment imposed from the bench. The broadcasts abuse power for the same reason: They augment punishment in ways never authorized by law. The State Legislature decided in 1977 to equalize the maximum punishment for prostitutes and their customers at 90 days in jail. It did not decree harsher treatment for customers.

"Typically, the ‘john’ is a first offender, arrested because he mistook a plainclothes policewoman for a prostitute. It does not in any way condone commercial sex to observe that for many of these offenders, the arrest itself, the hours in pre-trial lockup and the difficulty of explaining to family and friends can constitute severe enough punishment. Perhaps that is why seven of the nine recently convicted and heralded ‘Johns,’ all first offenders, were sentenced to ‘time served’ and two got off with warnings.

"If the legislature wants to punish male first offenders more severely, let it say so. If judges dismiss too many cases, let prosecutors appeal to higher courts. There are ways to combat prostitution without the mayor doubling as judge and newscaster."

On Oct. 11, 1979, columnist Bill Safire wrote, "The mayor of New York, eager to prove how ardent a feminist he can be, announced this week that men convicted of patronizing prostitutes would have their names broadcast over the city-owned radio station, WNYC. ‘We’re going to call it ‘The John Hour,’ said this new impresario of public shame. ‘We’re not allowed to put people in stocks anymore, so instead, what I’m going to do is to focus public attention by putting their names in stocks . . .’ Chew that over.

"Half a world away, in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini enforces his strict notions of public morality by shooting adulterers and beheading prostitutes. Here in New York, the Mayatollah Ed Koch enforces public morality by reaching back three centuries to come up with a broadcast version of a humiliation Pilgrims called ‘the stocks.’"

It would appear there is new interest in prostitution, with the state legislature increasing penalties not only for pimps, up to 25 years, but for johns up to a year. Perhaps my original idea of name publication of convicted johns might be accepted today by the media and cultural institutions. Sometimes old ideas, ahead of their time, catch on.

I was surprised when the Times recently accompanied the news article reporting the new approach of law enforcement with a picture which bore the description, "Men accused of soliciting prostitutes were taken to be arraigned in Manhattan on Monday. A law has increased penalties for convicted clients: one year in jail, instead of 90 days." The face of at least one of the arrestees is, I believe, clearly visible; the others successfully hid their faces.

What do you think of my idea?

Edward Koch was the 105th mayor of New York City for three terms, from 1978 to 1989. He previously served for nine years as a congressman. Read more reports from Ed Koch — Click Here Now.











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