In New Orleans, the cops and the DA’s office are using a 200-year-old state law written for child molesters to charge hundreds of sex workers as sex offenders.
The law, which dates back to 1805, makes it a crime against nature to engage in “unnatural copulation”—a term New Orleans cops and the district attorney’s office have interpreted to mean anal or oral sex. Sex workers convicted of breaking this law are charged with felonies, issued longer jail sentences and forced to register as sex offenders. They must also carry a driver’s license with the label “sex offender” printed on it.
An article in Colorlines, the national newsmagazine of race and politics, quotes community activist Deona’s assertion that this weird manipulation of the law “is part of an overall policy by the New Orleans Police Department to go after petty offenses.” Colorlines reports that New Orleans police arrest more than 58,000 people every year. Of those arrested, nearly 50 percent are for traffic and municipal offenses, and only 5 percent are for violent crimes.
Sex workers accused as sex offenders face discrimination in every aspect of the system. In most cases, they cannot get released on bond, because they are seen as a higher risk of flight than people charged with violent crimes. “This is the level of stigma and dysfunction that we’re talking about here,” said [Josh] Perry [a former attorney with the Orleans Public Defenders office]. “Realistically, they’re not getting out.”
The prospect of challenging sex offender charges is made especially difficult by yet another weird Louisiana legal catch-22. According to Perry, “The way Louisiana’s habitual offender law works, if you challenge your sentence in court and lose, and it’s a third offense, the mandatory minimum is 20 years. The maximum is life.”
If you fall on the wrong side of the law just once, as was the case for many of the women interviewed for this article, you are going to have a major struggle ever getting your life back on track. Beyond the ongoing weirdness of this obsessive criminalization of sexual behavior, this seems to be one more glaring instance of the criminalization of being poor and helpless.