Bill would allow sex workers to report crime without fear of prosecution

Isidoro Rodriguez

In 2016, Laura Mullen, then a sex worker, was raped by members of the criminal gang MS13 on Long Island.

“They held a knife and an ax to my throat,” said Mullen. “I still live with the trauma from that day.”

Now Co-founder of the Survivor Advisory Board — a Long Island-based advocacy and support group aimed at ending human trafficking — Mullen says she was afraid to tell the police for fear they would charge her with a crime. It’s an experience she said many sex workers and victims of human trafficking share.

“After that occurred, I was scared to walk up the block that I had walked every day,” said Mullen.“And I was afraid to go to the cops and tell them what happened because they could charge me with prostitution.”

On Tuesday, Mullen and other advocates gathered in Albany to urge lawmakers to pass a bill that would offer sex workers and trafficking survivors immunity from prosecution when they report crimes and seek medical care.

Without immunity, advocates say sex workers and trafficking victims who are witnesses to or victims of crime can be arrested, harassed and belittled when they come forward.

“You see things and you want to speak out, but you're afraid of not having any protection,” said Mullen.

Similar bills have passed in Oregon, California, New Hampshire and Vermont. Colorado passed an immunity bill last week.

State Sen. Luis Sepulveda, D-Bronx, who co-sponsored the bill along with Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, said he feels hopeful that the bill will pass. In previous years, the bill has stalled in committee, but advocates say legislation is moving more quickly now that the worst days of the pandemic seem to be behind us.

Rebecca Cleary, a staff attorney for Decriminalize Sex Work, a national nonprofit sex work advocacy group, says the bill would also benefit law enforcement officers, making it more likely they get good information from witnesses.

In a memo supporting the bill, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg agreed.

“New York is safer when survivors and witnesses feel comfortable reporting crimes,” he wrote. “Silencing these individuals does not protect us, it only protects the perpetrators of the crimes these survivors and witnesses are too afraid to report.”

Laura Mullen said immunity from prosecution means sex workers and survivors of human trafficking won’t have criminal records, and that will make it easier for them to start over when they are able to do so.

“Taking that one prostitution charge away gives them confidence, it gives them security, and it lets them know that when they do change their life they're not going to have that on their back forever.”