Police demand licensing system for decriminalised sex work

SA Police will refuse to support a bill to decriminalise sex work if it does not include a “robust” licensing system to prevent an “insurgence” of organised crime into the industry.

Aug 19, 2021, updated Aug 19, 2021
Sex industry advocates Georgia Thain, Jodie Wells and Dominique Kohoron protesting outside SA Parliament two years ago ahead of the last failed bid to decriminalise sex work in 2019 (AAP Image/Kelly Barnes)

Sex industry advocates Georgia Thain, Jodie Wells and Dominique Kohoron protesting outside SA Parliament two years ago ahead of the last failed bid to decriminalise sex work in 2019 (AAP Image/Kelly Barnes)

An Upper House committee is currently examining legislation introduced last year by Greens MLC Tammy Franks to remove prostitution from South Australia’s criminal code.

The latest push represents the 14th attempt to decriminalise sex work in SA, after the most recent bid in 2019 was voted down by the Lower House 24 to 19.

South Australia is one of three Australian jurisdictions which fully or partially criminalises sex work, along with Western Australia and Tasmania.

Soliciting prostitution in SA can attract a maximum penalty of $750, while those found to be living on the earnings from prostitution can be fined up to $2500 or jailed for six months.

The bill before the Upper House committee would see the criminal code amended to abolish offences related to prostitution.

It would also remove part six of the Summary Offence Act 1953, which criminalises managing a brothel with fines of up to $2500 or six months in prison.

In a letter submitted to the select committee, Police Commissioner Grant Stevens said SAPOL could not support the current bill even though police “[do] not object to the decriminalisation of sex work per se”.

“We cannot support a Bill (if passed in its current form) which allows [sex work] to operate in an unregulated environment,” he wrote to the committee in June.

“We hold the view that the sex industry should be regulated to ensure the safety of the people operating within it, and for the general community as a whole.

“We maintain and continue to advise that the industry requires regulation and suitable police authorities.”

South Australia’s legislation currently allows any authorised police officer to enter and search a premise if they have “reasonable grounds” to suspect it is a brothel – a provision that would be removed under the proposed decriminalisation bill.

Stevens said regulation was needed to allow police to prevent an “insurgence” of organised crime into the industry, which he described as “highly likely” without a regulatory framework.

The police commissioner also claimed the regulations in the current bill “would be less than that imposed on many other small businesses”.

He went on to list eight elements SAPOL would like to see in an amended decriminalisation bill, including:

  • provisions for criminal intelligence,
  • a “robust” regulated model involving licensing or certification of brothel owners, operators and managers, and
  • provisions enabling disqualification of operators if they are deemed “not fit and proper”.

“SAPOL asks and recommends that discussion occurs to identify a model which will allow police to maintain community safety and continue to address serious and organised crime risks,” Stevens said.

One hundred organisations and individuals have made submissions to the sex work select committee this year, with SA Health and the Law Society of South Australia already expressing their support for decriminalisation.

Responding to SAPOL’s submission, Sex Industry Network general manager Kat Morrison said concerns about an infiltration of organised crime were an “age-old trope” with “little to no basis in reality” in SA.

“Most sex workers in SA are either sole traders, small co-ops or collectives of workers, or establishments run by non-affiliated individuals,” Morrison said.

“Conflating the sex industry with organised crime and, specifically, with an ‘insurgence’ of organised crime is pure hyperbole and sensationalism.

“NSW did not see an insurgence in organised crime after decriminalisation in 1995, and the NT have also not seen an insurgence in organised crime since decriminalisation in 2019.”

Morrison said the “relevant legislative scaffolding already exists” to address the concerns outlined by SAPOL in their submission.

“Decriminalising the sex industry will not remove SAPOLs power to address drug distribution, trafficking of persons, or money laundering,” she said.

She also criticised the call to introduce a licensing or certification model, arguing it results in a “two-tiered system” where many sex workers fall outside the purview of the law and are not supported by industrial legislation.

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Licensing schemes for sex workers and brothels currently operate in Victoria, Queensland and the ACT, although the Victorian Government last week announced it would be abolishing its “outdated and difficult to navigate” licensing system as part of a move to full sex work decriminalisation in the next two years.

SA Labor MP Clare Scriven, a member of the party’s Right-faction which played a pivotal role in voting down the last bid to decriminalise sex work, said SAPOL’s submission demonstrated flaws within the decriminalisation proposal.

“SAPOL makes some good points about this Bill reducing the police’s ability to limit the involvement of organised crime, which is one of the many reasons this is a poor Bill,” she said.

“Neither decriminalisation nor a licensing system removes the violence which is central to prostitution.

“Both systems support the view that women are commodities who can be bought and sold, which reduces gender equity for all women and reduces safety for all women.

Scriven said the latest decriminalisation bid would give “pimps and brothel keepers” more power and “do nothing to increase safety for the women and girls in the sex trade”.

Conversely, Tammy Franks – who spearheaded SA’s 2019 decriminalisation bid – said SAPOL’s submission to the select committee was “pretty underwhelming”.

“It doesn’t address the use of the current criminal provisions and their policing of them,” she said.

“I think SAPOL’s missed the point with the submission, and I look forward to hearing their evidence when they present.

“The claims that something that’s currently criminalised would somehow be more attractive to organised crime if we made it lawful do defy logic.”

SAPOL do not yet have a scheduled time to appear before the committee, according to Franks.

Sex Industry Decriminalisation Action Committee coordinator Georgia Thain said SAPOL’s submission to the committee was “frustrating” and “not particularly surprising”.

“They say they don’t object to decriminalisation … but then two sentences later talk about a robust regulatory model – which is not decriminalisation.

“The industry is currently deregulated because it’s criminalised, and we want to decriminalise it so that the Organised Crime Control Act and taxation law and planning regulations can all apply, which would make it regulated.”

Chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier appeared before the select committee in May to say the current criminal framework is “creating barriers” for sex workers to access health care and for health officials to control the spread of diseases – including a potential COVID-19 outbreak.

Spurrier said her preference would be for full decriminalisation and not a licensing model.

South Australian Law Society President Rebecca Sandford also told the committee her organisation was “particularly pleased” the current decriminalisation Bill contains no provision for licensing.

Franks estimated around two-thirds of submissions to the select committee were in favour of decriminalisation.

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