NEW YORK — A New York judge agreed Wednesday to dismiss thousands of prostitution-related offenses dating to the 1970s at the request of the Manhattan district attorney, who also said he would no longer prosecute many offenses related to sex work.
The mass dismissal of charges is the latest big step in a movement to decriminalize sex work, or at least aim prosecutions at human trafficking or exploitation, rather than at mostly poor women who have historically made up the bulk of people arrested.
The cases also include charges related to loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution. Earlier this year, the state Legislature repealed a 1970s anti-loitering law that opponents decried as a "walking while trans" ban.
State court Judge Charlotte Davidson dismissed the cases after District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., a Democrat, told the court in a video hearing that he wanted the cases dropped because the accused were "unfairly targeted" for prosecution.
"By vacating warrants, dismissing cases and erasing convictions for these charges, we are completing a paradigm shift in our approach," Vance said in a statement after the decision. "These cases … are both a relic of a different New York, and a very real burden for the person who carries the conviction or bench warrant."
Vance's office said it had identified about 6,000 cases in its records dating to 1976 where there were convictions or open warrants with top charges of misdemeanor prostitution or unlicensed massage.
In February, New York repealed a 1976 law that allowed police to arrest people who appeared to be using a public space for prostitution. Police could make that judgment based on someone's dress or appearance. Lawmakers pointed to police reports that cited "wearing a skirt" as grounds to make an arrest.
Eight people — including five transgender woman of color — filed a 2016 lawsuit challenging the old law as discriminatory, saying it had led to arbitrary arrests of transgender people in particular. The plaintiffs said people were still being detained "simply because an officer takes issue with her clothing or appearance."
Since then, local district attorneys had started to voluntarily stopped enforcing the law.