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Sex and AIDS. Both are being traded on Salt Lake City streets on a daily basis.

In fact, according to law enforcement officials, Salt Lake City has become a haven for prostitutes from around the United States who can practice their trade - and knowingly spread the deadly AIDS virus - without prosecution.The reason? The city's jails are full.

"I am afraid there will soon be an AIDS epidemic in this city," said Sgt. Terry Orton of the Salt Lake Police vice squad. "Because of the jail overcrowding, we are about nine to 10 months getting them into the system. Even if there were only 15 girls, they're (each) pulling 10 to 15 tricks a day."

But the number of women selling sex is much higher than 15.

Orton told the Health Interim Committee Wednesday that 145 prostitutes were arrested in Salt Lake City alone from May to July, in addition to 134 "Johns" or customers. Another 58 persons were arrested for sex-related disorderly conduct.

"There are so many out there, we don't know who does and doesn't have AIDS," Orton said. "Many who do say they don't care what happens to anyone else because they (the prostitutes) are going to die anyway."

Because prostitution is only a misdemeanor offense and the Salt Lake jail already is crowded, their crimes haven't carried much of a penalty. Prostitutes arrested are typically back on the streets before their paperwork is completed by police. Needless to say, if not held in jail, they don't show up for court.

Orton said police tried to book a prostitute who was named in $11,000 worth of warrants, and yet she was still turned away from the overcrowded jail.

Another prostitute with AIDS was released from prison "to die at home with her family."

"We arrested her five times in a week after that, then finally got her booked for distribution of a controlled substance," Orton said.

Salt Lake City/County Health officials want the intentional spread of AIDS to stop and Wednesday endorsed a bill to put prostitutes who carry the virus behind bars.

The legislation calls for a mandatory AIDS test and counseling upon a first conviction for prostitution. A second conviction for a person testing positive would be upped from a Class A misdemeanor to a second-degree felony, carrying a one-to-15-year prison sentence.

"I think heterosexual sex with an infected prostitute puts the individual at risk, their wives at risk, and potentially, children at risk," said Lewis Garrett, associate director of the department's Family Health Services.

But the proposed legislation, introduced into the last session of the Legislature as SB-212, doesn't have the support of the Utah Department of Health's AIDS Advisory Committee. Members reject the bill in favor of improved treatment strategies.

The bill has also put the local health department at odds with AIDS support groups who believe jail time for prostitutes may be discriminatory.

"I think such legislation would be constitutionally suspect," said Michele Parish-Pixler, executive director of the Utah American Civil Liberties Union.

Parish-Pixler said penalties for patrons of prostitutes also would have to be stiffened "otherwise you'll have sex discrimination problems."