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Monica Jones, AZ transgender woman, convicted of the crime ‘Walking while trans’
April 14, 2014

A Phoenix judge on Friday found a transgender woman guilty of a prostitution-related offense based on a city ordinance that the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona has deemed unconstitutional.

Monica Jones, 29, was arrested in May as a part of a Phoenix police prostitution-sting operation.

Jones, an activist for sex-worker rights, was charged with manifestation of prostitution, which police can enforce based on a number of qualifiers: repeated attempts to engage a passer-by in conversation, attempts to stop cars by waving at them, inquiries as to whether someone is a police officer or requesting that someone touch his or her genitals.

She pleaded not guilty and challenged the constitutionality of the law she allegedly violated. She subsequently asked that the case be dropped. Attorneys for Jones filed a memorandum in March stating that the ordinance targets transgender women by its interpretive nature and violates the First Amendment.

"Even assuming the government has a compelling interest in prohibiting prostitution, a measure that criminalizes a broad range of legal speech surely cannot be the ‘least restrictive’ means to furthering such an interest," the document states.

In an interview with The Arizona Republic on Thursday evening, Jones said she felt she was targeted because of her race and gender.

"You never see a heterosexual transgender man (accused of manifestation of prostitution)," she said. "It targets women, especially women in poverty, and women of minority."

Jones returned to court Friday with reinforcement.

Dan Pochoda, legal director of the ACLU of Arizona, argued on behalf of Jones. He said the ordinance is a “classic example of criminalizing protected speech” and said courts in other states have vacated similar statutes.

Assistant City Prosecutor Gary Shupe argued that the ordinance contains an element of intent and said that there appears to be a split between how courts have dealt with comparative laws.

Two witnesses were called to testify during the trial before Phoenix Municipal Judge Hercules Dellas: Jones for the defense and an undercover Phoenix police officer for the prosecution.

Their stories about what happened the night the officer picked up Jones in his truck diverged on a key factor: Although Jones agreed that she accepted a ride from the officer, she maintained that he was the one who approached her.

The courtroom gallery was spilling over with supporters for Jones and transgender and sex-worker rights, many of whom protested the charges outside the courthouse just before the trial. An audible moan rang throughout the courtroom when Dellas announced his guilty verdict.

The case underlines a rift among some activists who work with sex workers. Many advocates work within the bounds of existing anti-prostitution laws to offer other life alternatives. Others, like the Sex Workers Outreach Project, aim to decriminalize the profession altogether. Jones is an advocate for the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Phoenix.

Jones’ crusade shone a spotlight on Project Rose, a Phoenix initiative that aims to divert prostitutes away from jail and toward social-service providers.

Through an interagency collaboration, the project offers those picked up for prostitution-related offenses a chance to sidestep the charge upon the completion of a diversion program and provides health and housing services immediately after police contact. If the person does not complete the program, the arrest is filed.

Other prostitution-diversion programs require suspects to plead guilty, with a promise to dismiss the conviction once the program is completed.

Jones was arrested in one of the Phoenix police stings that involved Project Rose. She said she had been protesting the project just one day before her arrest.

Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of Arizona State University’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research, who evaluates Project Rose, said that of the 367 people who were offered diversion under the project, 366 chose it over jail.

She said there is a 28 percent success rate in the diversion program. But Roe-Sepowitz added that it’s important to note that it often takes multiple tries for sex workers get out of the profession. She said a first chance is offered through Project Rose and a second chance through traditional plea agreements.

Jones said that even with the diversion program, Project Rose is helping to criminalize sex workers. She said resources would be better spent talking to sex workers and offering services without criminalization.

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