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ACLU calls on Newark police to stop arresting prostitutes, johns

NEWARK, N.J. — It's a common sight in a section of the south ward of Newark: women, ranging in age from their late teens to their fifties, walking the streets.  The Newark Police Department decided to crack down on the situation over the weekend, but now, days later, the Garden State's main civil rights advocates are criticizing move.

The ACLU of New Jersey said on Tuesday that the arrest of more than a dozen people for either selling sex or buying it last Saturday night "sweeps... into the criminal justice system" people like one sex worker PIX11 encountered on Hawthorne Avenue.

"Right now you're on the strip," she said in an interview, referring to the stretch of Hawthorne "where we make our money, where we're working."

We'll call her Tiara.  She said she's worked the blocks around Hawthorne Ave. and South 20th Street  regularly for the last couple of years. She also spelled out why.

"They've gotta do what they do to survive," she said, referring to the women she works with along the strip.  "Most of these girls come from dysfunctional families....  Some come from anywhere."

"We have one thing in common," she added, "selling [expletive] and getting high."

Last Saturday, police swept in and arrested four women Tiara knows.  They also arrested nine men who were seeking sex for money.  The idea, police say, was to try and clean up a persistent problem.  But not everybody sees it that way.

"We are concerned that this oppressive" pursuit of "low level crimes is not the best solution," said Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director of ACLU New Jersey.  The organization views prostitution arrests as counterproductive to helping communities, and advocates for prostitution to be legalized.

"Sweeping people into the criminal justice system won't solve the problem," LoCicero said.

Newark's public safety director, who oversees the police department, sees things differently, and feels the ACLU's criticism is wrongheaded.

"Why Newark?" asked Anthony Ambrose.  "If this were any other municipality it'd be different.  I'm going to keep enforcing the law.  I'm not going to tell my officers to turn a blind eye on prostitution."

Contrary to the ACLU's criticism that arresting sex workers and johns strains community relations, Ambrose said, "Community engagement is about working with them. We're responding to their hue and cry."

Those complaints come from people like Roberta Green.  She owns a multi-family home that she rents out, around the corner from where Tiara admits to turning tricks.  It's activity that the ACLU says should be protected, not prosecuted.

"You're telling me it's about rights," said Green, the South Ward homeowner.  "What rights do I have?"

"Drugs, prostitutes" and other activity, she said, has "infested" the neighborhood.  "I can't wait for them to shut it down."