Prostitution law change won't make sex work safer, say Calgary police

Calgary police vice unit's Staff Sgt. Robert Rutledge says the Supreme Court of Canada's decision won't address the root of the safety issues the sex workers face.

Supreme Court of Canada struck down 'grossly disproportionate' anti-prostitution laws Friday

Amanda Berjian, who works with Shift, an organization that supports those in the sex trade, says she and her colleagues are thrilled with the ruling. (CBC )

Calgary police say decriminalizing prostitution won't make sex trade workers any safer.

On Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country's anti-prostitution laws in a unanimous decision, ruling that laws prohibiting brothels, living on the avails of prostitution and communicating in public with clients were over-broad and "grossly disproportionate."

Staff Sgt. Robert Rutledge, who heads the Calgary Police Service's vice unit, says the court's decision won't address the root of the safety issues the sex workers face. 

“It is a dangerous occupation whether or not you're conducting sex trade business out of a hotel or on the streets, it's highly dangerous,” said Rutledge.

“Unfortunately, the sex trade workers on the street, they are heavily addicted to alcohol and drugs, many of them have mental health issues so by charging them, that just victimizes them all again and sending them into the court system does not do any good.”

Rutledge also said most of the prostitution-related cases the vice unit deals with are related to human trafficking, which won't be affected by the changes.

Parliament has a year to rewrite the sex-trade-related laws and, in the meantime, Rutledge noted, the existing Criminal Code provisions will continue to apply.

“The laws are the laws, and as a police officer I'm paid to enforce them and [its] business as usual, status quo until I get direction from Alberta Justice or the federal government or Chief [Rick] Hanson."

Advocates declare victory

But Amanda Berjian, who works with Shift — an organization that offers support services to Calgary sex workers — said the decision is still very much a victory.

“We are thrilled with the decision — this has been a case we've followed closely. Today’s decision is exactly what we wanted to see,” she said.

Berjian, who helps some workers get out of the business and works to keep those who want to stay in the sex trade work safe, said the anti-prostitution laws created unsafe working conditions.

“The Supreme Court's ruling is an acknowledgement that prostitution laws that sex workers have been working under are not safe and have created harms against sex workers,” said Berjian. “By removing these laws it puts power back into sex workers hands to decide what is the safest way for them to work.”

With files from the CBC's Meghan Grant