May 31 - June 6, 2001, Vol. 20 No. 39

Greg Konstantinidis

Sweep the Street

Law would let cops jail suspected teen hookers

The teen who looks 16 rocks on her white runners and skinny legs, staring into the busy intersection at Dundas and River on a damp Friday before midnight. Cops could nab her. The young woman wearing silver knee-high platform boots, a black tube-top clinging to her chest, smiles at drivers passing the corner of Church and Carlton while grabbing her dirty blond hair. Cops could nab her.

Under proposed provincial legislation, police could, with or without a warrant, nab and temporarily confine anyone under 18 whom they believe to be engaging or attempting to engage in prostitution. Then a judge can confine them to a "safe" house or return them to their parents. Sudbury Liberal Rick Bartolucci has tabled Bill 22 in a fourth try to "protect children" from sexual exploitation. But since it's a private member's bill, the Harris Tories are expected to reintroduce instead their Bill 176, which is modelled after Bartolucci's, to crack down on youthful sex workers.

Few obstacles would impede the passage of either bill, since all three parties have gone on record to give the proposed legislation the green light, including, shockingly, the NDP. But hookers, streetworkers and lawyers are flashing a red light. They believe politicians and police are playing on stereotypes to violate streetwalkers' rights and make their lives miserable.

Mary Birdsell, a lawyer with Justice for Children and Youth, believes the proposed legislation is not the way to handle the problem of teen prostitution. "This law makes it legal to grab someone and put them in jail. That's what it is, jail. If you say to someone that you want to help them, and they say no, and then you say, "I'm going to take you anyway,' that's coercive. Teen prostitutes should be able to access services on their own." That's the concern of streetworker Beric German, who has helped young prostitutes through the Streethealth program. "I don't think the way to handle prostitution is arrests and harassment, and arrests and arrests," he says. "This social issue should be treated as a social issue, not a police issue."

Surprisingly, some street services support the proposed bill. Susan Miner, executive director at Street Outreach Services, calls youth prostitution "childhood exploitation," and claims most of those the SOS counsels "have abusive relationships." She is concerned, however, that the final legislation may be coercive. "We would prefer to see the access voluntary."

Michele Anderson, who has worked with young prostitutes for 11 years at Covenant House, holds a similar view, and believes the proposed legislation should be even stronger. "These girls come from broken backgrounds and have experienced some type of abuse," she says. They are "lured into prostitution by pimps who wait for them at the Bay Street bus station. All of them have pimps. I don't think this is a matter of freedom of choice (for teen hookers). Young prostitutes are terrified for their safety, for their lives. A lot of them want to get out, but they fear the consequences — that the pimp will come after them."

That's not how Sex Professionals of Canada's Valerie Scott, an experienced sex-trade worker, sees it. "What planet is she from?" she asks. "That's Hollywood bullshit!" Scott and other sex-trade advocates take issue with what they consider exaggerated portrayals of teen prostitutes as drugged-up, pimped-out sexual victims who need protection. In fact, they say, prostitutes don't experience more abuse or addiction problems than the rest of the population.

Young hookers, she says, usually work independently or with peer groups. Only 2 per cent of them have pimps. "Prostitutes aren't stupid. What, we have no desire whatsoever to hold onto our money?" she sarcastically asks. "Is a 16-year-old a child? I don't think so. There are 15- and 16-year-olds out there who are doing OK. They pay their rent, some go back to school."

Says Kara Gillies, herself a pro for 10 years and a worker with prostitution resource centre Maggie's, "Prostitution isn't just a form of exploitation, where there's a pimp with a big, floppy hat and a predator seeking fresh flesh. It's an income-generating activity, a way of making a living." The bill, she worries, gives police the power to apprehend a young person without evidence. "Any young person out on the street is in danger, because the bill gives cops carte blanche."

Adds Scott, "For young girls, it will be terrifying. It's completely undemocratic — holding people without due process. It's a police-state mentality. We just want to be left alone." Says another prostitute who wishes to be nameless, "On the one hand, they say these girls are victims. Then they lock them up." And returning them to their parents is, she says, idiotic. "They're the ones who kicked the kids out of their homes."

Lawyers agree with hookers that the legislation would give police excessive power over youth and teen prostitutes. "It's hugely coercive. Any time you give a police officer arbitrary power, it's coercive," says lawyer Paul Copeland. "The question is whether it's justifiable." Lawyer Peter Rosenthal says prostitution, regardless of age, is legal under the Criminal Code. A hooker "has the liberty under the Charter, under section 7," he says. "The bill does interfere with her right to conduct her life as she wants." But it's the cop's ability to grab suspected hookers without a warrant that most concerns Rosenthal. "In practice, it's more likely to be used without a warrant. The cops can just go up to someone on the street and grab them. It could be abused."

Juvenile task force detectives, who have been involved in talks with government officials and social workers, declined to comment on the proposed legislation or their working relations with streetwalkers. "I don't want to comment on that," says detective Steve Tracy of the task force.

Meanwhile, Bartolucci hopes the Tories give Bill 22 a "speedy reading," fulfilling his three-year personal crusade. But he believes the Tories will reintroduce Bill 176 in order to take credit for the legislation. "They should only be interested in protecting these kids," he says. Although seemingly well-intentioned, the creator of the bill admits he has not had extensive dealings with teen prostitutes. But the real shocker is the NDP. While spokespeople say they are concerned about possible infringements of individual rights and the powers being given to police, they support the bill. "We are cautiously supportive," says Peter Kormos, NDP justice critic.

Those cautions are not only that "prostitution in and of itself isn't an illegal act," but also about the ability "of the police to take anyone in custody and lock them up when there may not be a violation," says Kormos. Still, the NDP supports the bill for second reading, but "we will commit to getting the bill developed and perfected, to make it legal and effective."

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Created: May 5, 2003
Last modified: May 9, 2003
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