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A Baltimore councilman wants to focus on punishing people who purchase sex as a way to curb demand, but will it work in a city that has a bustling red-light district just blocks from city hall?

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TAYA GRAHAM: I’m now joined by Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, the elected representative of District 8. Now, Councilman Burnett, you recently decided to tackle the crime of human trafficking. What’s motivating you? Is there a personal story behind this?

KRISTERFER BURNETT: Absolutely. It wasn’t something that I ran on when seeking public office, or worked on or knew a lot about before getting in this position. However, last spring, in 2017, I received a call from a constituent of mine who at the time was a counselor at Western High School. And she indicated that one of her students was believed to have been trafficked in nearby D.C., and that we needed to do something about it. I didn’t know what to do. And so I contacted Councilman Cohen, who chaired the Education and Youth committee, and said look, let’s do a hearing to see what’s going on in Baltimore, what services are available, what are our agencies doing to combat this issue, what’s the the school system up to, and just sort of raise awareness.

So we spent a lot of time making sure that schools were invited and their parents knew about it, and we held the hearing. And for me it was life changing to hear the stories of survivors and to hear directly from service providers some of the great work that they’re doing, but also some of the challenges that they face, whether it’s funding for beds or resources, or being able to connect and reach out to, survivors. There were also gaps in collaboration between law enforcement agencies between, within the police department, Baltimore Police Department, and between the police department and the school police. There just wasn’t a lot of collaboration going on. And not really a lot of focus, from my perspective.

And so in July of 2017, I introduced the resolution that established the Baltimore City Human Trafficking Collaborative as a way to try and have more of a coordinated response to this huge issue in Baltimore City.

TAYA GRAHAM: So you’ve also proposed a bill that perhaps is going to penalize or apply fines to those who purchase sex work, the customers. Can you, can you describe this bill a little bit, what it looks like right now?

KRISTERFER BURNETT: So right now it’s very preliminary legislation, and the idea behind it is to attack demand.

TAYA GRAHAM: So then it’s based off the Nordic model of trying to cut down the demand for prostitution by penalizing the customers, right?


TAYA GRAHAM: It’s been used somewhat controversially in Sweden, Norway, right?

KRISTERFER BURNETT: And other jurisdictions. In Montgomery County most notably has the same legislation, as well as a few other jurisdictions across the United States.

And so it’s like I said, it’s very preliminary. The idea is to penalize purchasing as a tactic to reduce the demand for victims of trafficking. It’s been controversial, obviously, both here and across the country because there is sort of a very fine line between the impact that law enforcement can have on people who voluntarily are sex workers, and for individuals who are being forced or coerced into sex work. And oftentimes the customers are the same customers. And so these are just some of the same people who may not know much about human trafficking at all, know that the person they are with is being trafficked or not. And so there is, we’re trying to get it right.

And so we had one hearing and the Public Safety Committee to get feedback on the bill as written from both advocates and proponents of how it’s currently written. And we’re going to continue to work within the collaborative and work with support organizations that do great work in the city to try and get it right and make some changes to the bill.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right. So what kind of feedback have you gotten from the community? I know you’ve gone to community meetings and talked to people about the danger of girls being groomed and pimped. What kind of feedback have you gotten?

KRISTERFER BURNETT: It has been sort of mixed. Most people don’t really understand the dynamics of trafficking. So oftentimes when I bring up this subject in community meetings some people in the room have a perspective that, you know, we should be locking up all sex workers, that there should be a heavy emphasis on law enforcement, and mostly those people come from areas that have high levels of prostitution. So for them it’s, they view it as a public nuisance. Once I’ve been given the opportunity to talk through it a little bit more, around the fact that there are people who may be out there as, just as sex workers, and there are people who are being forced to do that work or maybe suffering from addiction issues.

And so when I have that conversation and help people go a little bit further into their thinking about what they’re seeing, then things kind of change a little bit. Well, we need to help these people, becomes sort of their response. But the collaborative, you know, I’m not a trained, a trainer in this issue. But one of the great things about the Baltimore City Human Trafficking Collaborative is we have a public awareness committee that is currently gearing up right now to do large-scale citywide trainings on the community level, universities and schools and PTAs to try and break down the myths of human trafficking and sex work for people, as well as sort of broaden their understanding of what they may be seeing and how they can be helpful. Because a lot of times if you’re seeing what could be trafficking but may not know who to call, you just kind of leave it there. Or maybe you call 911 or maybe you don’t.

And so we’re working on publishing materials, palm cards. We are in conversation right now with Mercy Hospital about using their bMORESafe app which currently, already exists. But adding language around defining what human trafficking is, as well as how to connect people to resources. But the other hurdle that we have to get over is a lot of times victims may not know that they’re being trafficked, and so we gotta change, sort of, the wording and how we work and do outreach so that we help them understand what’s actually happening. because what I’ve found in serving on the Collaborative, and in the hearing, and talking to folks who work with survivors, or who are survivors, a lot of times they think they have a boyfriend that is asking them to do things, and will give her a phone or take her shopping, or get her hair and nails done, which is very appealing especially for a victim that are young, and children. They are very susceptible to that. And a lot of traffickers prey on that they prey on the naivete and also the poverty rate. I mean, for them, I get money in my pocket. And you know, I have to do these things that, you know, I may not feel like, you know, I want to be up for it. But I’m doing it because I have to, or because I want to, or a lot of time traffickers will use drugs to coerce young victims.

So it’s a very complex subject. But Baltimore City is sort of at the center of it. And when we talk about region, the region of Baltimore, and our proximity to 95 and 70 and 695 in Baltimore and D.C., New York, the major arteries, casinos, sporting events. All of these things are very attractive for traffickers who are trying to make money, and for people seeking sex and willing to pay for it.

TAYA GRAHAM: I also hear you’ve gotten feedback from organizations like Power Inside or SWOP, which is Sex Worker Outreach. What what kind of views did they share with you in relation to a human trafficking bill? So their feedback was sort of rooted in, I mean, the only way, they believe the only way to end human trafficking is to legalize sex work. At least that’s how my perception of what the , how the conversation went. They weren’t excited about the bill. They felt it would disproportionately impact people of color, women of color, the transgender community, the LGBTQ community would be impacted by this. And I thought that their concerns were valid. It was one of those things where I’m sort of walking on a journey that is new to me. So I thought the meetings were very productive.

The time that I spent talking to them has been very productive, and I think they raise some valid points about about that as well as making sure that the bill both, also applies to workers as well. If we are going to do a citations so that, because right now as currently written, the only option for a sex worker would be incarceration. And for the john it would be a citation or arrest. The thinking is that there’s not a lot of arrested johns. And I’ve, I’ve heard that from the police department. I’ve heard that from the State’s Attorney’s Office, and advocates. Some of it’s, sort of, need for retraining and a different perspective on why they’re here. And it goes all way up the judges as well, because when there are arrests oftentimes these cases are thrown out or they’re given a PBJ, just a slap on the wrist, essentially what the response has been from the criminal justice system. But there’s also some logistical issues around sort of state laws that make it very difficult to prosecute and arrest Johns that we are trying to also work on as well in Annapolis.

And so I think we have a ways to go. I’m not fast-tracking the bill at all. We didn’t call a vote in the hearing so that we could continue to work with organizations like SWOP and Power Inside and others to continue to try and craft something that is helpful. But it’s also not the only bill, right. I’m not ending human trafficking with a john bill. You know, this is, my focus has been on the Collaborative. We’re also working to retool the already existing human trafficking legislation in Baltimore City that applies to hotels. And it was passed by Councilman Kraft. Requires posting in hotel rooms, which hasn’t really been enforced as well as training for hotel staff, which is actually occurring.

TAYA GRAHAM: Training them to find the signs of trafficking, right.

KRISTERFER BURNETT: To identify signs of human trafficking. Because a lot of times traffickers will often use hotels. And in Baltimore City, and all of the hotels. So we’ve been reaching out to hotel managers and hotel security to try and figure out OK, how can we make this bill a little bit better than what it already is. We’re looking to try and adopt the national model, which requires airports to have human trafficking information posted in restrooms. We’re trying to do the same thing in hotel rooms. And we have a bunch of other things that are going to be coming down the pipe and trying to raise funds for organizations that provide services and support for survivors. There’s always a lack of funding, and the city can certainly do more. And so I have some legislation we’re working on to try and push more funding to these organizations that do help.

But you know, this is not something that a 6-month or 3-month thing for me. I’m fully committed to working on this for my time in office.

TAYA GRAHAM: I think it’s going to take a lot of work to realize a piece of legislation that deals with some of the complexities of this issue. Let me ask you this: if human trafficking is forced sex work, and, or forced prostitution, and sex work is chosen labor, is there any way that you can pass legislation that acknowledges the difference that there are cases where people are coerced, and cases where women and men and trans folks are participating willingly in sex work? Is there any way to show, for your legislation to find a difference there?

KRISTERFER BURNETT: I don’t think so. I just think from, from a legislative perspective, I mean, what we’re kind of describing is a conversation that needs to be had, an investigation that needs to be had. Outreach that needs to be done to the workers to figure out what’s going on. And that’s not really anything you can legislate. I think that’s really working with organizations that do outreach to make sure they have the support, working with the Health Department to make sure they can do a better job at outreach and support, to the folks who are being coerced to get them into a better situation. It has to be the key. And I don’t know that we can legislate that. I could be wrong.

And we’re looking at, like I say, we’re looking at everything. Everything is on the table. We’ve done some research in my office to see what other jurisdictions have done across the country and what’s been effective, what hasn’t, so that we can get something right.

TAYA GRAHAM: Do you think sex work can be decriminalized completely, or even legalized like it is in Nevada, or in Denmark, or Norway? Do you think we could actually see a move towards legalization in Baltimore?

KRISTERFER BURNETT: It would have to be state. The laws governing prostitution and sex work are state laws. We have enabling legislation, that we can sort of make some changes locally, local jurisdictions can. But we wouldn’t be able to do that in Baltimore City.

But I have to be clear, though, I mean, even in Nevada there’s still human trafficking. Because especially when you talk about child sex trafficking, when we talk about labor trafficking, these are things that, there are people who are into that. There are pedophiles who are willing to pay for children, or want younger-looking workers that, they are not doing that under their own fruition. They are being forced into that. And that’s a big problem that exists all across this country, and in Europe. In other, and other jurisdictions as well. So I think it’s something that we, it’s a very difficult subject and a very complex one, but I don’t know if there’s a single answer when we talk about trafficking and we talk about sex work. They are very different things.

TAYA GRAHAM: Do you think there’s actually any place for sex workers in Baltimore? For example, a lot of communities are having kind of a NIMBY response. There is pushback against seeing prostitution on their streets. Is there any room for sex workers in Baltimore?

KRISTERFER BURNETT: I think we have a ways to go when we talk about the public perception of sex work. There is, a lot of the public does not understand what’s going on. They don’t, they don’t get it, they don’t like it. And so I think we have a ways to go, has been my experience so far, and short of reshaping the public perception about what’s going on.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, we have the Baltimore block. It’s one of the oldest red light districts in the country. It is only a few blocks away from City Hall. It is right next door to police headquarters. One could make the argument that we have decriminalized sex work right in the heart of Baltimore City and that it’s doing just fine.

KRISTERFER BURNETT: I would say it’s still a mixed bag. I’ve talked to some folks in law enforcement, and actually they were doing an investigation at one of the clubs where a 14-year-old was working there. And that has been not, that’s certainly was not the first, and was not there under her own volition, at all. There’s also a huge criminal element that operates in and around the block that is currently under investigation. But obviously it’s longer standing, so we’ll see how, you know, the police and law enforcement are able to really crack down. But there has been several instances in raids over the years on the block where they found children being pushed into sex work. And there are also women who work there because this is the way they can make money, and I think that’s OK. I don’t that’s what I’m here to, try and stop that. My job is to try and help victims and survivors of trafficking who don’t want to be there or who may not be there on their own to get out.

TAYA GRAHAM: We’re talking about the Baltimore block, and I’ve spoken to club owners and people, hotel owners as well, and they have said that the block is actually a form of tourism for Baltimore City, that we actually profit, that we benefit from having this form of decriminalized sex work in the heart of our city, that people go from the baseball and the football games to the block. People come in from conventions from out of town and they come visit the block.

Is it possible that sex work could, sex workers being decriminalized could actually benefit Baltimore economically? Because from what I’ve heard it actually is part of a tourism boost.

KRISTERFER BURNETT: Yeah, I think when we look at Amsterdam, for example, where their red light district’s regulated, Australia it’s regulated, there’s testing. Sex workers are in a much more safe position when we talk about having a official institution that oversees their safety and access to help if they need it. But if you really are willing, if you want to do that you should be able to do that. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think we have a ways to go when it becomes, but I think it’s one of those dirty little secrets where everyone knows it’s happening. No one wants to admit that they are.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right. It’s happening right in the heart of our city.

KRISTERFER BURNETT: The heart of the city. So there’s no doubt. I mean, I walk out of City Hall after O’s games, I see Orioles hats walking in and out of the clubs. So that’s a real thing, and I would say that the organizations like SWOP, for example, who do work with sex workers would argue that, I don’t speak for them, but I would argue that if it is something that is legalized and we can provide resources like other countries have done it makes it safer for everybody involved. So I think I’m not against it. I’m not here to stop that.

TAYA GRAHAM: OK. I think that’s great. I think that people who support sex workers and work for organizations that do outreach for sex workers will be really pleased to hear that decriminalization isn’t your enemy in this, in this conversation, and that we actually have a an example of decriminalization of sex work right in the heart of our city, and it’s been thriving for decades.

I want to thank my guest Councilman Kristerfer Burnett for joining me for this important discussion, and I want to thank you for joining the Real News network.

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Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns. Follow her on Twitter.