Panel Paper: Racial Disparities in the Enforcement of Prostitution Laws

Thursday, November 6, 2014 : 3:05 PM
Santo Domingo (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Shana M. Judge1,2 and Mariah Wood1,2, (1)University of New Mexico, (2)The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Prostitution and related acts are treated as crimes in almost every law enforcement jurisdiction in the United States. When enforcing these laws, police officers typically direct their limited resources to the most visible aspects of the crime: prostitution that occurs outdoors, involving so-called street workers who attract complaints from surrounding communities. Because officers tend to target street-level prostitution, few prostitution arrests occur indoors.

However, prostitution regularly occurs in both outdoor and indoor venues. In addition, evidence suggests that street workers tend to be non-white in rates disproportionate to their representation among all prostitutes and disproportionate to the demographics of their surrounding communities. Thus, targeting outdoor prostitution may lead to significant racial disparities in the enforcement of prostitution laws, with non-white prostitutes being arrested at higher rates than their white counterparts, even though both violate the same criminal statutes.

To assess whether the law enforcement focus on outdoor prostitution results in racial disparities in prostitution arrests, we examine arrest data for years 1993-2010, collected directly from police departments in three populous North Carolina cities: Charlotte, Durham, and Raleigh. These data include arrest location and demographic information. We collect additional demographic data from online advertisements in 2010 for indoor-based prostitution in these same cities, including ads from an online website for escorts and from, a classified advertisement website. We then compare descriptive statistics for the arrest and online data to determine whether these data provide evidence of racial differences among prostitutes in indoor and outdoor venues. We also analyze racial differences among arrestees by using multiple logistic regression techniques to explore factors that may be associated with these differences.

Results from our 2010 data show that where race information is available in online ads for prostitution in the three North Carolina cities, the percentage of ads depicting black females is either less than or about the same as the percentage of black females in each city’s population. In contrast, the percentage of arrestees who are black and female is 2-3 times as great as both the percentage of ads depicting black females and their percentage of the population.

Moreover, results from our regression analysis of the longitudinal arrest data show that the location of the prostitution arrest is associated with the race of the arrestee. For example, the odds that a Charlotte arrestee is black are 5.5 times as great when the prostitution occurs outdoors compared to indoors, while in Raleigh, the corresponding odds are 2.4 times as great. In addition, increases in age, rising unemployment rates, and being female also increase the odds that an arrestee is black.

Our analysis suggests that in these cities, law enforcement’s focus on outdoor prostitution appears to result in black females being arrested for prostitution at higher rates than their white counterparts and at rates disproportionate to their presence in online advertisements for indoor prostitution. Refocusing police efforts to enforce prostitution laws regardless of where violations occur or decriminalizing aspects of prostitution crime would likely reduce or eliminate this disparity.