Anti-prostitution bill tries to push problem elsewhere

ROGER SIMON

November 15, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Baltimore City Councilman Tim Murphy has drafted an anti-prostitution bill that tries to bring a new realism to an old problem.

Unstated in, though underlying, the bill are the beliefs that:

* Little can be done to wipe out prostitution.

* Trying to do so by arresting more suspects or increasing the punishment will simply burden an already over-burdened criminal justice system.

* Shifting prostitution away from residential neighborhoods is about as much as we can hope for.

Yet even a bill as modest as this one demonstrates the problems of trying to satisfy outraged public opinion with new laws.

Reacting to public complaints, Murphy is proposing a bill that would create "Prostitution-Free Zones" that would force prostitutes to abandon commercial strips and other areas near or in residential neighborhoods and go . . . someplace.

"This bill is modeled on the Drug-Free Zone concept, which causes drug dealers to go somewhere else," Murphy said. "I hope to capitalize on that phenomenon."

In Drug-Free Zones, often placed near schools, a person can be arrested for standing around if he refuses a police officer's order to move.

If Murphy is able to extend the concept to prostitutes, police would have a legal way, in essence, to "roust" prostitutes, to move them along without arresting them.

"Arresting prostitutes takes too much manpower for a police department already dramatically understaffed," Murphy said. "My idea is to move prostitutes from posted areas to areas less visible or less objectionable. I have no illusions it will eradicate the problem."

What this should eradicate, however, or at least reduce, is citizen complaints.

Acts of prostitution are not the real problem for lawmakers. Angry voters are.

Murphy believes, however, that the resolution Councilman Tony Ambridge has proposed, which would sentence prostitutes to community service, is "well-intentioned" but could create more problems than it solves.

"If you imagine the criminal justice system as a tube, then that tube is already full," Murphy said. "If you put one person in one end, somebody has got to pop out the other end.

"The courts are acutely aware of this and judges have to wonder if, by sentencing a prostitute for the fourth or fifth or tenth time, they will force a thief or armed robber to come out the other end of the tube."

As it happens, Ambridge thinks even less of Murphy's bill, though he says Murphy's "intentions are good."

"That kind of legislation sounds good, but what does it do?" Ambridge said. "Drug-Free Zones haven't done squat in my district. And they are of dubious legality."

The First Amendment guarantees "the right of the people peacably to assemble" and in February the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, dismissed charges against a man arrested for loitering and drug violations in a Baltimore Drug-Free Zone. The court delayed, however, a decision on whether such zones are constitutional.

But while Murphy says he has taken pains to draft a law that will satisfy constitutional challenges, Ambridge does not believe it is a fruitful route to follow.

"I appreciate the frustration Tim feels -- I share it -- but I don't know if we can solve the problem by cutting (constitutional) corners," Ambridge said.

Nor is Ambridge in agreement with Murphy's fundamental approach: moving prostitution.

"He has said he wants to move it downtown, but downtown businesses are already upset with obscene behavior, and the (Schmoke) administration wants to eliminate The Block," Ambridge said. "Murphy's district borders Anne Arundel County, so he says move prostitution and let somebody else worry about it. My district is in the middle of the city. I don't want to push prostitution around to somebody else."

Murphy admits his bill is not a solution to prostitution, but he thinks it is a realistic approach that avoids further clogging of the criminal justice tube.

"I'm not saying this is a perfect tool," Murphy said of his bill, "but I don't know of a neighborhood who has not called and asked for help in this problem. These zones would hopefully move the prostitutes out of the neighborhoods.

"Where, I'm not sure. But I know they came from someplace."

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