Allegheny County halts criminalizing of condoms in prostitution cases
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, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.