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Sex Workers Labeled as Sex Offenders

The Louisiana Weekly, USA
January 2010 – New Orleans city police and the district attorney's office are using a state law written for child molesters to charge hundreds of sex workers like Tabitha 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.
Of the 861 sex offenders currently registered in New Orleans, 483 were convicted of a crime against nature, according to Doug Cain, a spokesperson with the Louisiana State Police. And of those convicted of a crime against nature, 78 percent are Black and almost all are women.
"This law completely disconnects our community members from what remains of a social safety net," said Deon Haywood, director of Women With A Vision, an organization that promotes wellness and disease prevention for women who live in poverty. Haywood's group has formed a new coalition of New Orleans activists and health workers who are organizing to fight the way police are abusing the 1805 law.
Activists like Haywood believe that using the law in this way is part of an overall policy by 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 five percent are for violent crimes.
Although some women have tried to fight the sex offender charges in court, they've had little success. The penalties they face became even harsher in 2006 when Congress passed the Adam Walsh act, requiring tier-1 (the least serious) sex offenders to stay in the public registry for 15 years. There's also an added danger to fighting the charges, according to Josh Perry, a former attorney with the Orleans Public Defenders office.
"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," he explained.
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 Perry. "Realistically, they're not getting out."
Advocates have said the ideal solution would be to get state lawmakers to change the law, but they feel there's little hope of positive reforms from the current legislature. For now, organizers want to put pressure on police and the district attorney's office to stop charging sex workers under the crime against nature statute.

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