Tuesday, January 26, 2010

New Orleans Uses Out-of-Date Law to Charge Sex Workers as Sex Offenders

I ran across this article written by Jordan Flaherty yesterday on Alternet and it made me really upset, thus this blog.

Prosecutors in New Orleans are using an old law which states that “unnatural copulation is a crime against nature” to charge sex workers as sex offenders. The law, which dates back to 1805, was originally written for child molesters, however now it is being interpreted as anal and/or oral sex.

Breaking this law is a felony, and so sex workers are receiving longer sentences and must register as a sex offender. According to the article, more than half of the currently registered sex offenders in New Orleans have been charged with a crime against nature (483 out of 861). Those charged with breaking this law are disproportionately black women.

Once a sex worker is convicted and forced to register as a sex offender, it makes life much more difficult for her.
“The law impacts sex workers in both small and large ways. Tabitha has to register an address in the sex offender database. Her driver's license has the label “sex offender” printed on it. She also has to purchase and mail postcards with her picture to everyone in the neighborhood informing them of her conviction. If she needs to evacuate to a shelter during a hurricane, she must evacuate to a special shelter for sex offenders, and this shelter has no separate safe spaces for women. She is even prohibited from ordinary activities in New Orleans like wearing a costume at Mardi Gras.”

Charging sex workers as sex offenders is attributed to the policy of the New Orleans Police Department to go after petty offenses. “According to a report from the Metropolitan Crime Commission, 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.”

Rosana Cruz of VOTE (Voice of the Ex-Offender) believes that there is a different reason saying, “what it is really about is over-incarcerating poor and of color communities. “

This whole situation appalls me. First of all, they’re mis-using a law from 1805. Eighteen Oh-Five! Things were totally different then, there were only a handful of states, New Orleans was a territory, and slavery was still legal! I feel that age alone should suffice to discredit the law. Not only that, but interpreting the law to mean anal or oral sex targets certain populations. The article mentions that persons who are transgender are often affected, but it also seems to target gay men and lesbians. Furthermore, as one person who commented on the article stated, one would wonder if the johns are also being prosecuted with a crime against nature’ I personally doubt this,which seems to indicate that they are not actually catching people in the act of “unnatural copulation,” but merely catching them soliciting.

Lastly, if New Orleans isn’t doing this to target certain populations of people and legitimately hopes it will cut down on prostitution, it’s just not happening. All this law is doing is limiting people’s options to the point where sex work is what they can do, as Deon Haywood (Women with a Vision) states.

"When you charge young women with this -- when you label them as a sex offender -- this is what they are for the rest of their lives," she said. Haywood said the women she sees have few options. Many of them are homeless. They are sleeping in abandoned houses or on the street, or they are trading sex for a place to stay. "The women we work with, they don't call it sex work," she said. "They don't know what that means. They don’t even call it prostitution. They call it survival."

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