Prostitution Free Zones Repealed in the District of Columbia

After nine years of organising, the joint efforts of NSWP member groups Best Practices Policy Best Practices Policy Project and HIPS, together with groups including Casa Ruby and the DC Trans Coalition have succeeded in having the District of Columbia’s “Prostitution Free Zone” policy overturned.

Since 2006, the Chief of DC's Metropolitan Police Department had the power to designate any public space in Washington DC as a prostitution free zone (PFZ). In a PFZ, the police were able to order anyone to leave the area or face arrest -- purely through profiling, based on appearance, gender identity, or similar factors, on the part of the arresting officer and without any solid basis for suspicion -- for the duration of the zone (up to 10 days at a time).

Red flyers were posted in neighbourhoods frequented by sex workers, gay, trans, homeless and low-income people reading: “Any person congregating in a group of two or more on public space within the boundaries of this Prostitution Free Zone for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or prostitution-related offenses, and who fails to disperse after being instructed to disperse by an officer of the Metropolitan Police Department, is subject to arrest. An arrest can result in a fine of not more than $300, imprisonment of not more than 180 days, or both.”

Sex workers were pushed to the edges of the city; to quieter, less-trafficked, more dangerous and darker areas. A short film by filmmaker and activist P.J. Starr goes into greater detail about the context and effects of the PFZs.

In late 2011, a member of the DC Council proposed making the PFZs permanent. A coalition of organisations worked to raise awareness about the proposal and its negative implications and more than a dozen witnesses at the hearing testified against the bill, with only a handful in favour, and the proposed bill did not advance. As BPPP wrote at their website in 2012: “Community members urged the Council to not only reject the proposal, but to take a comprehensive and evidence-based look at the city’s current strategy in order to calibrate policies to promote safety for all, public health, and human rights.”

In June 2014, the DC Council considered legislation to repeal the law, which DC's Attorney General had determined was unconstitutional and indefensible. Bill B20-760 to repeal the PFZ provision from the DC Code was co-introduced by Councilmembers Grosso, Catania, and Cheh and co-sponsored by Councilmember Wells.

On October 7, 2014, the DC Council voted on a bill to repeal the PFZ law as well as the “Drug Free Zones” law that it was based on. After an initial unanimous vote, the Council revisited the topic at the request of Councilmember Yvette Alexander who claimed, according to BPPP, that the PFZs were an important tool to address concerns about sex work in neighbourhoods she represents, despite testimony from police that the PFZs have not been used for over two years.

Councilmember Wells said that PFZs are discriminatory. “Despite evidence to the contrary,” BPPP wrote at their website, “the Chairman of the Council, Phil Mendelson claimed that the PFZs were effective, but that the law must be repealed because of the constitutional concerns. Councilmember Grosso noted that the constitutional concerns are not the only reason for repeal. “This is also about human rights in the District of Columbia,” said Grosso. “These zones were used not necessarily to address prostitution or sex work, but to discriminate against people walking down the street that we didn’t want walking down the street.”

Eventually the Council voted 10-2 to repeal the Prostitution Free Zones law.

BPPP wrote at their website:

“All laws under consideration by the full Council must be voted on twice – a second vote on the bill will be taken on October 28th, but in light of the vote tally, it is likely to pass. Although a largely symbolic gesture, since the police have already acknowledged not using the zones for the past two years and no plans to use them in the future, the debate over the bill shows the importance of removing laws targeting sex workers, and those profiled as such, for increased criminalisation. Best Practices Policy Project, which assisted the Alliance for a Safe and Diverse D.C. in its community-based research in 2007 and 2008, applauds this step forward for D.C. and encourages the D.C. Council to consider implementing other recommendations from that report.”


The repeal is just a first step in improving the lives of sex workers in DC. As stated at the end of the short documentary film, activists say that DC should review and change all laws that undermine the health and safety of sex workers and work to end police abuse and challenge the policies that cause so many people in DC to be incarcerated and to end the prison industrial complex.

Regional Correspondent: North America and the Caribbean