ShareThis Page
Allegheny

Allegheny County halts criminalizing of condoms in prostitution cases

Megan Guza
| Thursday, June 21, 2018, 4:12 p.m.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Allegheny County Poilce Superintendent Coleman McDonough.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
Allegheny County Poilce Superintendent Coleman McDonough.

Allegheny County police officers will no longer criminalize condoms in prostitution-related cases, the department superintendent said Thursday.

The change comes 2½ weeks after a Tribune-Review investigation found that the charge was being levied against women and men caught in prostitution stings based on individuals carrying condoms.

“I understand that public health concerns, at times, they line up with criminal justice concerns, but sometimes they are at odds, and we have to make a decision,” police Superintendent Coleman McDonough said. “Looking at it and taking all the public health concerns into consideration, too, we will not charge possession of an instrument of crime for condoms.”

The Trib analysis showed police charged people with both prostitution and possessing an instrument of crime in 100 cases last year in Allegheny County. In 15 of those cases, condoms were the alleged instrument of crime. In 14 others, police seized condoms as evidence.

McDonough noted that “no one has ever gone to jail for possession of an instrument of crime for (only) condoms,” noting that the charge for condoms was coupled with prostitution charges and, more often than not, a charge of possession of an instrument of crime for cellphones.

He indicated that police can still file possession charges based on cellphones, which are often categorized as instruments of crime in criminal complaints when they are used by sex workers to set up appointments with clients.

Activist groups — including the burgeoning Pittsburgh chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project — mobilized and began calling for the police and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. to end the practice.

Jessie and PJ Sage, co-founders of the Pittsburgh SWOP chapter, called Thursday's news a win.

“Because these practices have already negatively impacted the sex work community by disincentivizing safer sex practices, education and outreach about these changes in norms will now be an important project for all public health organizations who work with this population, including SWOP Pittsburgh,” Jessie Sage said.

She urged county police to take a page from Washington, D.C., metro police who, upon decriminalizing condoms in prostitution cases, handed out condoms with information cards detailing the new policy.

McDonough stressed that condoms still will be mentioned in conversations during prostitution stings and in affidavits of probable cause and criminal complaints, “but that's just to buttress the probable cause for the prostitution arrest.”

PJ Sage said the group will remain dedicated to changing the practice of possession of instrument of crime charges relating to cellphones.

“We remain concerned that instrument of crime charges — which, counterintuitively, are more severe than prostitution charges — will continue to be levied against sex workers for possessing cellphones in order to justify taking them into custody and to extort plea bargains on lesser charges,” he said. “Cellphones are important tools for providers' safety, enabling them to make ‘safe calls' to friends and to contact emergency services if necessary.”

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519, mguza@tribweb.com or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me