Prostitution in Baltimore is tough to legislate away

ROGER SIMON

November 14, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

While there were almost 900 arrests for prostitution in Baltimore last year, the activity flourishes.

There is both a high demand and a seemingly endless supply.

But neighborhood residents who are tired of seeing hookers on their streets want something done about prostitution, and they want their lawmakers to do it.

Which is why the Baltimore City Council now finds itself with two anti-prostitution proposals before it.

One is a resolution by Councilman Tony Ambridge, D-2nd, and the other is a bill by Councilman Tim Murphy, D-6th.

The bills are worth examining not because they will significantly reduce prostitution -- they will not -- but because they show how difficult it is for well-intentioned lawmakers to satisfy public outcry with legislation.

"Residents were complaining about open prostitution, and so I went to Sumpter Park in August and I saw men visibly receiving oral sex in the bushes," Ambridge told me. "Something had to be done."

Ambridge has long been concerned with prostitution -- he can rattle off the exact locations where one can find different types of sex for sale -- and in 1983 he sponsored the bill that increased the fine for prostitution from $100 to $500. (Maximum jail time is kept low -- 90 days -- so that the alleged prostitutes cannot demand a jury trial.)

"Prostitution may be a trite and insignificant crime to some, but to my constituents it's important," Ambridge said.

So now Ambridge has drafted a resolution urging the courts to use "community service sentences" for prostitutes "including street sweeping" and to urge the General Assembly to allow Baltimore greater powers of "forfeiture," i.e., confiscating the cars of the alleged customers of prostitutes.

But even though it is only a resolution and not a law, the action raises problems.

First, sending hordes of prostitutes throughout Baltimore's neighborhoods to engage in community service might give them exactly the kind of business opportunity they want.

And second, as one official critical of the approach, who asked not to be identified, said: "Community service sentences usually involve sending the lawbreaker to work in senior facilities, hospices and facilities with children. Are these appropriate places for prostitutes?

"And remember, we are talking about people [i.e. the prostitutes] who are probably drug users and probably HIV positive."

The other aspect of the resolution, forfeiture, raises an immediate constitutional question:

The Supreme Court ruled in June that forfeiture is subject to the limitations of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits excessive fines. The court also said there has to be some relationship between the seriousness of the crime and the property that is taken.

So can you seize someone's $25,000 car because the driver used it to drive up to a prostitute and be solicited, which is only a misdemeanor?

And keep in mind the car would be seized before trial and before conviction.

But Ambridge believes that "meaningful" sentences that are more severe will reduce prostitution.

"If punishment is increased, the incidents of prostitution most definitely will be reduced," Ambridge said.

Many criminologists and judges would disagree, however: Increasing punishment does not "most definitely" decrease crime.

And I asked Ambridge if the prostitution situation in Baltimore was better or worse than it was in 1983.

"Oh, it's much, much worse," he said.

But in 1983, you made the penalty for prostitution five times more severe, I said. So why didn't prostitution decrease?

"Well, I believe. . ." Ambridge began. "First of all . . . well, the entire criminal justice system is strained to the point where they are rationing justice."

And Ambridge is correct.

Which is why many judges feel that dealing with prostitution cases -- trying to turn prostitutes into agents of community service or entering into the tangled thicket of forfeiture -- is a waste of precious time and resources.

Which is exactly what the public does not want to hear.

MONDAY: Prostitution-Free Zones?

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