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City pledges to get prostitution working group back on track

Midtown public safety group, social justice organization quarrel over tactics

A City Hall effort to find a humane solution to get sex workers off the streets while also appeasing residents frustrated with prostitution has fallen by the wayside. That's led some members of the group tasked with finding a solution to go rogue with their own media-savvy efforts.

But the city's team is still working, said Melissa Mullinax, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed and co-chair of the task force. She pledged the group will meet again soon and said it is on track to issue a final report in May.

Mullinax said the Working Group to Reduce Prostitution (WGRP) has not met since October because of staffing, elections, and various political crises. But two key organizations that drove the formation of the WGRP have grown impatient: the tough-on-crime Midtown Ponce Security Alliance (MPSA) and the social justice group Solutions Not Punishment Coalition, or SNaPCo.

In January, the MPSA went over the city's head to propose a — unlikely to pass — state law that would make prostitution in residential areas a felony. Mullinax said Reed wouldn't support such a move. Late last month, SNaPCo staged a City Hall press conference demanding Reed support a "pre-booking diversion" program that would offer prostitutes a social work and treatment regimen instead of jail. SNaPCo also accused the Atlanta Police Department of harassing transgender people in Midtown under the current lock-em-up strategy.

The two groups have quarreled over tactics to address the issue. MPSA, a private neighborhood crime patrol group, has attracted criticism for claiming a "trans-prostitute gang" of "thugs in drag" controls the area. The MPSA and APD's unsuccessful push in early 2013 to ban convicted prostitutes and Johns from the area resulted in the WGRP.

MPSA Vice President Steve Gower said "a message must come out of the WGRP that engaging in street prostitution and the criminal activity inevitably resulting from it must stop, especially in a residential area." Social work is a fine "enhancement" to that, he said, but the MPSA is concerned diversion programs could be help criminals who "want to play the system."

SNaPCo argues that most transgender prostitutes are residents forced into sex work because of discrimination in workplaces and other social factors. Crackdowns are already resulting in false arrests of transgender people not involved in prostitution, it claims.

SNaPCo's Xochitl Bervera said she's "frustrated and concerned" about the lack of action. She called the MPSA's proposed law "out of step" and "bloodthirsty" when even conservatives are trying to reduce jail populations. The group last month delivered 1,000 postcards from metro Atlanta residents to Mayor Reed backing the diversion program, modeled on one in Seattle.

It remains to be seen what the WGRP will conclude, but Mullinax expressed doubts about the MPSA and SNaPCo's favorite ideas. As for diversion programs, the new Seattle model lacks hard data on its results, Mullinax said. The APD denies false arrests of transgender people in Midtown, as SNaPCo acknowledges no formal complaints have been filed yet, she said.

In the interim, a proposal for a "Johns school" program for convicted patrons of prostitutes is close to completion, Mullinax said. So is a new APD standard for relating with transgender people. The WGRP has highlighted the city's overall need for better understanding of thetransgender community. WGRP "is not over," she said.

"We need to wrap this up and get something to the council and the mayor."

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