Over 200 sign letter criticizing DC bill to decriminalize commercial sex work

PHOTO: The historic John A. Wilson Building houses the Executive Office of the Mayor and the Council of the District of Columbia. PlayGoogle Maps Street View
WATCH Bill proposed to decriminalize sex work in Washington, DC

More than 200 people, many of them former sex workers, have signed an opposition letter publicly criticizing a bill that would decriminalize sex work in the nation's capital.

The Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019 was introduced by D.C. council member David Grosso, an independent, on June 4. If passed, it would remove criminal penalties for commercial sexual exchanges, such as prostitution, for those 18 years and older. The letter, obtained by ABC News, was sent directly to the council Oct. 1.

Rev. Dr. Marian Hatcher, the letter's author and a self-proclaimed survivor of the sex trade, is one of the bill's critics. Hatcher said in the letter that she doesn't oppose decriminalizing prostitution but feels the legislation would open the door for sex trafficking, brothels, pimping and violence against women in the district.

"We are horrified by the proposal to decriminalize informal brothels throughout the District. This, paired with the decriminalization of sex-buying, would surely fuel the trafficking and exploitation of countless other vulnerable groups," she wrote, calling on council members to vote against the legislation.

PHOTO: The historic John A. Wilson Building houses the Executive Office of the Mayor and the Council of the District of Columbia. Google Maps Street View
The historic John A. Wilson Building houses the Executive Office of the Mayor and the Council of the District of Columbia.

The bill was co-sponsored by nearly a third of the city council and backed by dozens of local and national organizations, Grosso said in a statement before introducing the bill.

"By removing criminal penalties for those in the sex trade, we can bring people out of the shadows, help connect them to the services they need to live safer and healthier lives, and more easily tackle the complaints we hear from communities about trash or noise," his statement said.

If passed, the bill would make D.C. the first place in the U.S., outside of a few counties in Nevada, where prostitution and sex work is decriminalized. Similar bills have been introduced in Maine, Massachusetts and New York.

Speaking Tuesday with Devin Dwyer, anchor of ABC News' "The Briefing Room," Yasmin Vafa, executive director of the anti-violence nonprofit Rights4Girls, also expressed concerns about the bill.

"What this would do is actually repeal the laws against pimping and pandering, purchasing sex and brothel keeping, which we're concerned would actually fuel exploitation of vulnerable communities," she said.

Vafa said since the bill's introduction, many sex-trade survivors between 9 and 24 years old have approached her organization, voicing their concerns. In response, Rights4Girls initiated a closed-door listening session with members of the council interested in hearing from them directly.

PHOTO: D.C. City Councilmember David Grosso is shown in this May 2, 2017, file photo, in Washington, D.C. Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE
D.C. City Councilmember David Grosso is shown in this May 2, 2017, file photo, in Washington, D.C.

Supporters of the bill haven't remained silent either. They wrote their own letter, which was signed by more than 70 community and national LGBTQ organizations on Wednesday.

Collective Action for Safe Spaces, an advocacy organization supporting safety protections for sex workers, will hold a round table next week at city hall. A tweet from the coalition this week called on the D.C. Council to approve the legislation.

PHOTO: LGBTQ, immigrant rights, harm reduction and criminal justice reform groups, led by people who trade sex, launched an organization coalition, Decrim NY, to decriminalize and decarcerate the sex trades in New York City and state. Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images, FILE
LGBTQ, immigrant rights, harm reduction and criminal justice reform groups, led by people who trade sex, launched an organization coalition, Decrim NY, to decriminalize and decarcerate the sex trades in New York City and state.

Tamika Spellman, who said she has been a commercial sex worker by choice for 36 years, told the Washington City Paper last June that she's been advocating for decriminalization of sex work in D.C. for nearly two years after a similar bill failed to pass in 2017.

"I was always comfortable doing sex work," Spellman said. "So I'm one of the ones that just wants the freedom because I deserve it. But then to keep pushing people that are out here struggling for survival into this box of criminality for surviving, and not having any support systems around it?"

The D.C. Council has scheduled a public hearing for Oct. 17.

ABC News' Tom Shine contributed to this report.