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Sex worker and cis and trans women of color-led anti-violence organizations recently issued a statement opposing California SB 1110. SWOP-USA shares many of the concerns regarding SB 1110, which as written, corrupts many of the core tenants of Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). However, we support LEAD as implemented in Seattle and wish to clarify how LEAD programs should be implemented for California State Senate members as well as members of our community voicing very legitimate concern.

We oppose the criminalization and imprisonment of people who trade sex and recognize that sex workers with marginalized identities are most vulnerable. Ultimately, as many harm reduction, sex worker, and criminal justice reform movements do, SWOP-USA struggles – now and frequently – to balance our desire for immediate reform and our long-term goal of decriminalization. As seen with drug policy reform, shifting from a criminal justice to a public health and human rights paradigm takes incremental steps, piecemeal reforms, and system transformation; and for us, it is becoming increasingly evident that we must also walk this path to secure the future we wish to see for our communities.  To this end, SWOP-USA views LEAD programs as one such step towards full decriminalization.

LEAD programs, as supported by Open Society Foundation, are a non-punitive alternative to booking and incarceration for people experiencing poverty who sell sex and people who use drugs.  LEAD is designed to connect people who have experienced repeated arrests with the services they need instead of throwing them in jail or into a coercive diversion program.  LEAD is a harm reduction intervention rooted in compassionate, non-judgmental and non-coercive care.

Typically, LEAD participants are expected to complete an intake form with a case manager from a harm reduction agency. After the initial intake, no other steps are required. If the participant would like services, they are offered the opportunity to continue working with the case manager.  LEAD does not exclude folks with previous convictions and prior experience with LEAD. Therefore, LEAD programs address poverty by offering services and resource navigation while acknowledging that people do what they need to do in order to survive.

LEAD police officers are provided with extensive harm reduction training.  LEAD police make a referral to the LEAD program based on program eligibility.  Case managers then connect participants with desired services.  Furthermore, police, prosecutors, case managers, and legal aid convene twice a month to discuss the program to ensure shared distribution of power.  Out of 400 law enforcement referrals into LEAD Seattle, only one began as a prostitution arrest. However, 20% of LEAD participants are women involved in the sex trade whose participation began with voluntary, social contact referrals.  All of the women in the program who were arrested for drug violations also report trading sex for survival needs.

Ultimately, we do not believe law enforcement should be the gatekeeper of services; and we believe better mechanisms and funding streams must be created for harm reduction and sex worker organizations to link individuals to services. Yet based on the proceeding information, much of which has been provided by LEAD participants, stakeholders and administrators, we feel that LEAD programs can be beneficial for people in the sex trade who use drugs and people in the sex trade experiencing poverty.

SWOP-USA finds SB 1110, as written, to be problematic in that it is using the LEAD name without adhering to the integrity of a LEAD program.  It outlines treatment instead of incarceration for people who use drugs, which violates the core harm reduction principle of supporting positive changes participants want to make, not dictating change for them.  Additionally, it separates people who use drugs from people who trade sex, which ignores the reality of some survival sex workers, and invites police to take on the role of social worker.  

To implement a stronger and legitimate LEAD program, we propose the following guidelines made to SB 1110 as well as implemented in pilot programs:

  • Pre-booking diversion programs must be open to individuals with multiple misdemeanors and felonies and serve people who frequently experience incarceration.  Ineligibility for the program must be minimal.
  • Pre-booking diversion programs must incentivise voluntary contact referrals over arrest and coercive participation.
  • A pre-booking diversion program must be rooted in harm reduction, meaning that treatment and abstinence are not conditions of participation.  The arrest-linked enrollment process must be minimally disruptive to participants lives, and participants must maintain control over the resources they do or do not access as a part of the program, as well as when and how they access them.
  • A pre-booking diversion program must be non-punitive, meaning that participants cannot fail out or get thrown in jail for selling sex or using drugs while in the program.
  • A pre-booking diversion program must not file a participant’s charges upon completion of an intake.
  • A pre-booking diversion program must provide harm reduction training to participating law enforcement, and these law enforcement officers must participate in regular advisory meetings with case managers and prosecutors.
  • A pre-booking diversion program must include strong mechanisms for filing complaints and explicit policies against police sexual violence and extortion.
  • Pre-booking diversion programs must not shame, degrade or stigmatize people in the sex trade or people who use drugs.  To this end, SWOP-USA calls on LEAD police and prosecutors to stop calling people who use drugs “addicts” and people who trade sex “prostitutes.”
  • Pre-booking diversion programs must include sex workers in their planning process.  Ideally, leadership will also be reflective of the people served by the program as related to both identity and experience.  


SWOP-USA urges localities engaging in LEAD and the National LEAD Support Bureau to consult with sex worker advocacy organizations as well as local survival sex workers.  In issuing this statement we hope that we and sex workers everywhere will be able to partner with LEAD stakeholders to ensure LEAD programs comprehensively, effectively, and compassionately serve people in the sex trade. We urge others in the sex workers rights movement to join us in engaging across the continuum of criminal justice reform and ensuring that our voices are heard.  We must not lose sight of our long-term goals for the decriminalization of sex work and drug use. As we shape interim solutions, we must never view such reforms as permanent or allow for their entrenchment. We must avoid complacency.  While supporting programs such as LEAD, we must continue to build our organizational, movement, and community capacities to fight criminalization and provide services without the involvement of law enforcement and the judicial system.

In solidarity,