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Criminology research considered by court

Sociology professor Augustine Brannigan’s research on the effects of regulation of prostitution on the incidents of murder of prostitutes in Canada is playing a key role in a case that went to the Superior Court of Ontario in September 2010 and is expected to go into appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada late in 2011.

A challenge was made to Canada’s anti-communication law, which makes it a criminal offense to communicate an exchange of something, including money, for a sexual act. The challengers assert that the law forces prostitutes to work on the streets in unsafe conditions whereas elimination of the law would enable them to legally work as escorts out of established venues, commonly known as bawdy houses, resulting in safer and controlled environments. This would allow people to take precautions in a way that street prostitution does not.

“The case is challenging the constitutionality of the anti-communication law, living off the avails of prostitution and the bawdy house law by arguing that these laws operate in a way that threatens individual’s safety.” says Professor Brannigan.

Prior to this case, Brannigan had studied the effects of the law throughout the 1990’s, after the 1985 federal anti-communication law made communicating for the purpose of prostitution a criminal offense. The law was and remains in opposition to a City of Calgary bylaw dating back to 1978. The Dating and Escort Service Bylaw enables escort agencies to become licensed in Calgary. According to Brannigan, at present there are approximately twelve agencies in Calgary employing about 400 escorts.

During his study Brannigan compared incidents of unnatural deaths of females between the ages of 12 – 60 who appeared to have been prostitutes in Calgary and in Winnipeg (where there is no equivalent to Calgary’s Dating and Escort Service Bylaw). Although he was initially skeptical about a connection between instances of murder and the anti-communication law, he found positive evidence of a relationship.

“What I found is that this is an inherently vulnerable area of work, except if one is working as an escort,” says Brannigan. “There was only one case of a murder of an escort in 1991 and that perpetrator was known to the victim.” The corresponding number of murders of street prostitutes was 14. Twelve other women in vulnerable circumstances (such as hitchhikers or abductions) were also murdered during the same period.

“Initially Calgary’s escort bylaw was only a management tool. As it turns out, it had the unintended consequence of creating a safer environment for prostitutes,” says Brannigan.

The outcome of Brannigan’s research suggests that the anti-communication legislation serves to force prostitutes to work in areas where they are at a higher risk of becoming victims of violent crimes. He was asked to submit an affidavit outlining his research results and observations of the behaviour of the law, which was reviewed in the current Superior Court Case. A similar court case is being heard in B.C.

“It would be ideal if we could eliminate prostitution, but that doesn’t seem very likely. Instead of criminalization, a harm reduction strategy that allows cities to manage prostitution would create a safer set of circumstances.”