Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Spitzer and Prostitution Policy

I have often been critical on my other blog about overzealous prosecutors. Most prosecutors are reasonable, but there are a few that seem to take a "holier than thou" attitude. This is the biggest reason why some are happy to see Eliot Spitzer's fall.

But there's a larger lesson about government policy. In most of the United States, prostitution is illegal. For some reason this doesn't seem to stop large numbers of women from selling sex and large numbers of men from buying. That, of course, is because prohibitions don't work. I would say prohibitions cause more problems than they solve, but they don't solve any.

Spitzer's case points to a few of the problems created. The biggest general problem is corruption. This is a broad problem. The simplest form of corruption is the tendency for those who enforce the prohibition to violate it themselves. This was quite common during alcohol prohibition. With drugs, we have seen far too many instances where police have been caught in the drug trade. As a lawyer I've had a few clients in the adult entertainment industry. They consistently tell me that cops are among the most frequent customers.

To be clear, I am NOT saying that all cops and prosecutors violate these laws. I am saying that their positions give them detailed knowledge about the prohibited industries and also subject them more frequently to temptation, and so it is natural that some would succumb.

Another form of corruption results from the hidden nature of the business. Prohibiting prostitution leads those in the business to do other unsavory things, such as hiding their transactions (money laundering and tax evasion) and human trafficking. Alcohol prohibition caused similar problems, and the drug war does so now.

As my friends at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition would say, you can't control something by making it illegal. What we might really want to do is control and regulate the issue of concern (alcohol, prostitution, drugs, gambling, etc.). In parts of Nevada prostitution is legal, and regulated. While I'm sure there are problems with that as well, prostitution happens whether it's legal or not. But the corruption aspect is essentially absent in Nevada.

Prohibition failed in this country, and we figured it out with regard to alcohol in 1933. Yet for some reason we persistently refuse to apply the lesson elsewhere.

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