San Francisco Task Force To Weigh Legalizing Prostitution

SAN Franciscans are newly debating an old issue - prostitution -

and the latest talk is drawing this one-time bastion of free-love liberalism into the national spotlight.

Partly because of the city's high-profile slide from love-ins of the 1960s to more recent devastation from the AIDS epidemic, an official Task Force on Prostitution here is sparking interest from coast to coast.

Created last month by a resolution of the Board of Supervisors, the new citizen committee will next month begin a year-long, global analysis of laws and policies concerning the world's oldest profession. Though organizers insist that there is no preset agenda, the committee has become hotly controversial because it will examine the pros and cons of decriminalizing prostitution as well as legalizing it.

Prostitution is growing nationwide, up from 72,682 arrests in 1988 to 78,224 last year, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Partly because of this, the San Francisco move is being seen as further evidence of a ground swell of disgust at the local level by municipal entities trying to improve neighborhood life from the streets up.

``This issue touches every top voter concern for the '90s ... crime, guns, quality of life, sexual abuse, drugs, AIDS,'' says Terence Hallinan, the county supervisor who sponsored and wrote the resolution. In San Francisco, there are about 200 arrests per month for prostitution, and complaints about street solicitation have grown steadily since the mid-1980s from neighborhood groups, merchants, tourists, and conventioneers.

``If people could see what happens here - the nightly shootings, stabbings, verbal assaults, and intimidation of residents - they would know why it's essential to come up with some new way of dealing with this,'' says Mike Fluke, Director of Save Our Streets Tenants and Merchants Association.

The resolution also acknowledges a concomitant lack of police resources and overcrowding of jails. Michael Curran, an inspector in the vice unit of the San Francisco Police Department, says his office has dwindled from 38 officers to nine since 1983, and local jails are under federal court order prohibiting overcrowding. In recent years, he says, officers have settled for issuing written citations on the spot, rather than taking arrested prostitutes to holding facilities or jails that cannot accommodate them.

Just days after the resolution passed and was signed by Mayor Frank Jordan Nov. 15, Mr. Hallinan was whisked into the national talk-show circuit, making appearances on ``Donahue,'' ``Today,'' ``NBC Nightly News,'' and with hosts of call-in radio programs. Eighty-five percent of a 10,960-respondent citywide poll said they felt that prostitution should be legalized.

``We've gotten requests from broadcast media in all 50 states,'' says Jean-Paul Samaha, a Hallinan aide. ``Everyone wants to know what they can learn from what San Francisco is going to do about prostitution.''

Some responses have been tongue-in-cheek.

``One option to be considered is setting up city-run brothels, where prostitutes would be licensed and subject to health inspections,'' said one editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle. ``What a nifty idea. Would the prostitutes be civil service? Could they be laid off?''

But because the resolution calls for diverse and specific representation, including appointees by the mayor, district and city attorneys, social service agencies, and women's and prostitutes' rights groups, it is being taken quite seriously in several quarters.

``The mayor is of the opinion some good can come out of this,'' says Noah Griffin, chief press spokesman for Mr. Jordan. ``If we can identify ways to get women off the streets or find jobs for those who are trapped by pimps, that is a worthy goal.''

But controversy has been stirred by promises that the task force will examine pros and cons of limited legalization in neighboring Nevada, as well as systems of regulation now in place in the Netherlands and Germany. ``If the goal is to transfer such ideas of legalization or decriminalization here, it's not going to happen during this administration,'' Mr. Griffin vows.

Penalties now call for jail sentences up to six months for first, second, and third offenses as misdemeanors, says Teri Jackson, assistant district attorney for misdemeanor trials. Felony convictions for engaging in prostitution while HIV positive call for 16 months to three years in prison.

If the task force were to recommend some relaxation of penalties for such offenses to the Board of Supervisors, the board could only pass on such recommendations to the Legislature and ask for a change of state law. As in Nevada, where lawmakers passed a local option for counties having 200,000 people or less, health regulations and taxes would follow. A similar task force looking into prostitution in Atlanta in 1986 recommended decriminalization of prostitution, but no legal action followed.

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