Monday, August 1, 2011

State of Louisiana Continues Push to Criminalize Sex Workers

This June, criminal justice activists in Louisiana won a major victory with the passage of a bill that effectively moved prostitution convictions back to the level of misdemeanor, heralding the end of Louisiana's archaic practice of forcing sex workers to register as sex offenders.

But lawyers for the state of Louisiana apparently still haven't gotten the message. Although the new law will prevent prosecutors and police from the practice in the future, the state is still defending the use of the law for those already convicted.

This is important, because at least 400 women are still being forced to register under the law - some have been sentenced to continue to face this burden for decades more. The state could do the right thing now and do away with the requirement. But instead they are choosing to fight to preserve the draconian punishment, and keep the sex offender registration requirement in effect for those convicted under the law in the past.

In a hearing scheduled for next week, lawyers for the state of Louisiana will argue that the law is constitutional and the sex offender registration should continue to be enforced on women who have already been convicted. "How can state attorneys argue for the necessity of something that the legislature has already voted to eliminate?" asks Davida Finger, Assistant Clinical Professor at Loyola and one of the lawyers who have filed suit against the state.

In other words, although the state legislature has voted to do away with the sex offender requirements, clearly showing that they believe they are not appropriate, and Governor Bobby Jindal has signed the bill that does away with the requirements, this other arm of state government is still defending the law.

Lawyers and advocates are encouraging those who are concerned about this case to come to court on Wednesday morning for the hearing.

The hearing will be:
Wednesday, August 10, 10:00am
500 Poydras, Courtroom C 551

Some background:

Previously, police officers and prosecutors in Louisiana had a choice between charging accused sex workers under the prostitution law, which was a misdemeanor, or under Louisiana's 200-plus year-old "Crime Against Nature" law, a felony. That law was interpreted to apply specifically to solicitation for oral or anal sex, but in practice it meant police had ultimate discretion on who to charge with the greater offense.

The majority sentenced under the law were indigent women of color and transgender women of color. Once convicted, they were also forced to register as sex offenders, which brought a long list of restrictions and requirements, including having the words "sex offender" printed in large letters on their driver's license, and the obligation to send a post card to all of their neighbors informing everyone of their conviction.

The new law did not eliminate the "Crime Against Nature" category entirely, but it made the penalties equal to the misdemeanor-level prostitution charge.

While police continue to harass sex workers across the state, and many women are still imprisoned under these regressive laws (even as US Senator David Vitter faced no penalty for his admitted liaisons with prostitutes), this is a step forward. And much credit should go to the NO Justice Project, convened by Women With A Vision, which worked to raise awareness about this unjust law and fought on multiple fronts to bring it to an end.

In a statement from the NO Justice Project released after the law was signed, Davida Finger, Assistant Clinical Professor at Loyola said, “We welcome this change in the law, which finally brings Louisiana in line with every other state in the country. But the injustice still persists. Almost 40 percent of registered sex offenders in New Orleans are on the registry because of a Solicitation of a Crime Against Nature (SCAN) conviction. They too should receive the benefit of this change in the law and be removed from the sex offender registry.”

Women With A Vision Executive Director Deon Haywood added, "We will continue to fight for justice for all those still living under the penalties of the past. There is still serious work to be done.”

“The grassroots and national leadership of Women with a Vision in tirelessly raising this issue for the past three years is nothing short of heroic,” said Andrea Ritchie, co-counsel in Doe v. Jindal, police misconduct attorney and expert on U.S. policing of women and LGBT people. “This victory is a product of collaboration between community groups, legal advocacy organizations and legislators seeking justice on behalf of the women and LGBT youth suffering from the discriminatory effects of SCAN – it is clear that community organizing can make real change.”

Women With A Vision urges those who have SCAN charges on their record and currently are on the registry to contact them at 504.301.0428.

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