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caption: The Washington state capitol in Olympia.
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The Washington state capitol in Olympia.

Harsher penalties for johns could come to Washington state

A person arrested for prostitution in Washington state faces the same penalties as someone soliciting sex.

A bill in Washington state would change that, and give harsher penalties to the buyers.

Multiple women who were previously sex workers, or victims of sex trafficking, have asked lawmakers to pass the bill. Rebekah Fonden testified Thursday in front of the Senate Committee on Law & Justice.

"I have been arrested and taken to jail multiple times by law enforcement for the charge of prostitution, when the buyer received a ticket and was sent home," Fonden said.

"This shows by law that my crime was worse," she said. "This is not right or just. I was a young girl who was manipulated and trafficked over state lines, having seen the worst of humanity."

Fonden is now a University of Washington student, community organizer, and a mother living in Seattle.

Engaging in prostitution and soliciting sex are both misdemeanor crimes in Washington state. The bill would increase the penalty to a gross misdemeanor for a 'john' arrested a second time (or more) for soliciting sex. While a misdemeanor comes with a maximum 90 days in jail and $1,000 fine, the sentence for a gross misdemeanor is up to 364 days in jail and $5,000 fine.

Opponents say the bill may force sex workers to seek out more dangerous clients, who aren't perturbed by harsher penalties. The Gender Justice League is among the groups that oppose the penalty changes. The GJL works closely with sex worker advocacy organizations, and focuses on elevating civil and human rights for trans and gender diverse people.

The house has already passed the prostitution penalties bill, and senators could vote next month. A committee vote is scheduled for April 2.

Seattle also considers both offenses to be misdemeanors, but uses the term "sexual exploitation" for the crime of buying sex. Under Seattle law, people who engage in sexual acts as part of a stage performance, or if they are the victim of sex trafficking, can be protected from criminal penalties.