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National ACLU calls for decriminalization of sex work; cites Rhode Island’s experience

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Rhode Island’s decision to recriminalize indoor prostitution a decade ago was an unfortunate one,” said ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown. “Rather than helping women, it has only channeled more of them into the criminal justice system. We hope this report will generate renewed discussion on this topic and reconsideration of the current state laws.


The National ACLU has issued a report calling for the decriminalization of sex work, relying in part on evidence gathered from a 30-year period of time in Rhode Island when indoor sex work was technically legal in the state. During these decades, Rhode Island law only prohibited the outdoor selling and buying of sex, creating a situation in which incidents of indoor sex work could not be prosecuted.

The report is a comprehensive review of more than 80 studies on the decriminalization and criminalization of sex work. In addition to finding that decriminalization will improve public health and safety while increasing economic stability for sex workers, the report concluded that the studies reviewed do not indicate a clear link between criminalizing sex work and stopping human trafficking.

Though the gap in Rhode Island’s law may not have been wholly intended, the report, citing a 2014 study examining Rhode Island’s experience, makes note of several residual benefits in Rhode Island emanating from the legality of the practice during that time:

  • In that three-decade period, between 1980 and 2009, there was a 30 percent decrease in reported rape offenses against sex workers.
  • Following this period of decriminalization, rates of gonorrhea decreased by over 40 percent amongst sex workers.
  • Arrests of sex workers decreased significantly during this time period.

Overall, the report, citing dozens of other studies as well, found that “the criminalization of sex work, including criminalization of buying […] increases the risk of violence and threatens the safety of sex workers.” The report encourages municipal, state, and federal reform to promote decriminalization efforts.

“Rhode Island’s decision to recriminalize indoor prostitution a decade ago was an unfortunate one,” said ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown. “Rather than helping women, it has only channeled more of them into the criminal justice system. We hope this report will generate renewed discussion on this topic and reconsideration of the current state laws.”

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The American Civil Liberties Union is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to upholding and protecting the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Founded in the 1920s by a small group of devoted civil libertarians, today the ACLU is comprised of more than 500,000 members and more than fifty affiliates and chapters nationwide.