Israeli President’s Plan to Erase Criminal Records of Women in Prostitution Will Help Very Few

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A woman working in prostitution in Tel Aviv, 2017.
A woman working in prostitution in Tel Aviv, 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and former Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn announced a program in late December to expunge the criminal records of women in prostitution, but it will only apply to about 2 percent of those it aims to help.

Prostitution is not a crime in Israel, but the law allows the police to open an investigation against anyone who is “found in any place for the purpose of engaging in prostitution, in circumstances that constitute a nuisance to nearby residents or an obstruction of movement on the roads.”

Figures obtained by the Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution through a Freedom of Information request, which were shared with Haaretz, show that the police have opened 734 cases of this kind against women and men in prostitution since 2013.

As a result, these individuals have a police record that may prevent them from being hired for positions in the public sector or that require a security clearance. Even though this information is supposed to be available to only a small number of agencies, many employers require job candidates to give them access to these records. Employees and volunteers in organizations that advocate for women in prostitution say the existence of these records is a psychological impediment for these women.

A police operation to shut down a brothel in Tel Aviv in March.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Under the plan outlined by Rivlin and Nissenkorn, anyone whose case was heard in court but who was not sentenced to jail time can submit a request to the president to have their criminal record expunged. However, Rivlin said that he could not be contacted about cases that didn’t lead to charges and a criminal proceeding since “the authority to expunge a police record lies with the Israel Police and not with the president.”

Police data show that only 12 of the cases against female prostitutes – less than 2 percent – were heard in court. There were 686 cases that the police closed without going to a judge due to lack of evidence or lack of public interest. There are a few dozen cases still open in various stages of examination.

Staffers at the President’s Residence were in touch with the police to try to get their cooperation. “The president raised the issue with the police commissioner and asked him to consider having the police join the president’s plan with regard to police records, which are under police authority,” stated the President’s Residence. “Broadening the measure would give the optimum response to anyone having difficulty entering the work force because of a criminal or police record from their time in the cycle of prostitution.” The police have yet to respond to the president’s request, and told Haaretz, “People in prostitution can apply to expunge their police record just like any other citizen.”

But organizations that help women in prostitution say that they rarely ask the police to expunge their record because they are afraid of the authorities, and that the police must take the initiative. Sources familiar with the details expressed hope that the new police commissioner, Kobi Shabtai, would deal with the issue. The police did not answer Haaretz’s query about how many women’s police records were expunged after they filed a request.

Police data also show there has been a change in the police’s attitude toward men in prostitution. In recent years there has been a marked drop in allegations of men in prostitution being a “public nuisance.” While there were 91 investigations launched for this offense in 2017, the following year there were 50, in 2019 there were 30, and last year there were only 15 such cases.

“The fact that there are hundreds of women with a police record solely for this violation, when the overwhelming majority of these cases are closed, poses an obstacle to their rehabilitation and their ability to enter the workforce,” says attorney Ayelet Dayan, co-director of the Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution. “We are talking about women whose only sin was that they were exploited by the cycle of prostitution, not criminality. The police must extend the policy of the President’s Residence and the Justice Ministry’s clemency program and expunge the records for this violation, and even create a dedicated program for the population in prostitution to expunge records for additional violations as well.”

She added that the public nuisance violation should be dropped from the law books because “It certainly isn’t appropriate given the new policy expressed in the Law Against the Consumption of Prostitution, which sees prostitutes as victims of a crime.”

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