Politicians do dumb things all the time. This is one of the main reasons cable news exists—to let us know when those stupid things happen and we can all pile on. Occasionally, politicians will try to do something dumb and, in their infinite dumbness, end up doing something smart by accident and when they do, we get a glimpse of how things could be in a better world instead of the way they are.
Rhode Island legislators fell into this category back in 1980; when they tried to update the state’s prostitution laws. Instead of making prosecution easier, as was their goal, they somehow managed to strike the original law against prostitution from the books. Solicitation on the street remained illegal as it was police under different laws but the act of hiring a prostitute for sex inside a building was legal within the state. In other words, Rhode Island’s state legislators accidentally decriminalized indoor prostitution.
Nobody noticed this change until a 2003 case against sex workers in Providence was thrown out when their lawyer successfully pointed out that no state laws were broken when they offered sex to undercover police for money. Legislators immediately got back to work trying to do something dumb—recriminalization—but they ended up facing stiff resistance. The politicians argued that Rhode Island’s reputation was being damaged and worried that the state was encouraging sex trafficking.
A coalition of academics and civil liberties advocates made a strong case that the change of law actually made life better for prostitutes, and a handful of lawmakers who actually looked at the evidence sided with them. They put off change until 2009, when the legislature finally criminalized prostitution once again, ending the brief golden period for the state’s sex workers. Now two academics have published a working paper looking at the 2003-2009 period in Rhode Island, and their findings largely back up the case that supporters for decriminalization made before the legislature screwed everything up again.
Economists Scott Cunningham of Baylor University and Manisha Shah of the University of California, Los Angeles, published their paper, “Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health,” this week through the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Given these types of laws rarely change and are fairly uniform across regions, our knowledge about the impact of decriminalizing sex work is largely conjectural,” Cunningham and Shah wrote. In examining the decriminalized market in Rhode Island, they found, as expected, that the market for prostitution expanded, as did advertising for those services—the kinds of outcomes that legislators were concerned about when they pushed to recriminalize.
But the two economists also found that Rhode Island experienced significant reductions in violent crime and sexually transmitted infections. The data showed a large decrease in rapes (831 fewer reported cases from 2004 to 2009) and a large reduction in gonorrhoea incidence post-2003 for women and men (1,035 fewer reported cases). Needless to say, this kind of information wasn’t taken into account when prostitution was forced back underground. The focus, instead, was on preventing human trafficking—even though experts testified that criminalization would actually make trafficking worse in Rhode Island – and repairing the state’s reputation by reinstating the laws that essentially the rest of the country already had on the books.
The situation is strikingly similar to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. As Cunningham and Shah pointed out with regard to prostitution laws, drug laws rarely change and are uniform across regions. As a result, talk about the real issues surrounding drugs is frequently made difficult due to hysterical opposition. However, in Colorado, legalization has gone forward over the objections of the old guard providing an opportunity to test their claims. Opponents of legalization have long said that allowing legal marijuana onto the open market would lead to massive spikes in usage and a resulting crime wave as new users become addicts. Those predictions have not only failed to come true, they have been the opposite of the situation in Denver, where property crime is down 11 percent and violent crime down 3 percent since recreational pot went on sale earlier this year.
America’s law books are packed with statutes that are more about controlling citizens’ behavior for political reasons than protecting anybody from criminal intent. Decriminalization of prostitution, drug use, gambling and other vices does not create crime. Instead, it recognizes that people are going to engage in some activities regardless of their legal status and charging those people with crimes for engaging in such activities is a greater burden on society than the activities themselves. Furthermore, research clearly shows that decriminalization can actually lead to reductions in real crime and threats to public health – benefits that can never be realized if the authorities are kept busy prosecuting consensual activities. The more vice laws that can be tossed, the better off we’ll all be in the long run.