In New Orleans, police and prosecutors have been charging the city’s prostitutes as sex offenders. The policy, which dates at least as far back as the 1990s, relies on an 1805 law banning “unnatural copulation,” a vague term prosecutors have interpreted to include anal and oral sex. According to ColorLines magazine, of the 863 people on the city’s sex offender list, 483 were charged under the law, meaning most of New Orleans’ sex offenders aren’t rapists or child molesters but adults who engaged in consensual sex with other adults.
Once on the list, offenders get a “sex offender” stamp on their drivers’ licenses and must mail postcards with their name, photo, and sex offender status to everyone in their neighborhood. Sex offenders also must use separate homeless shelters and hurricane evacuation shelters, and are barred from traditional city events such as costumed Mardi Gras parades. One prostitute told ColorLines she was convicted as a sex offender in 1999. Her time on the list had nearly expired when she was arrested for crack possession. Although she was never charged (she claims the officer found no drugs on her), the arrest alone violated her probation and put her on the sex offender list for another 15 years. Under the federal Adam Walsh Act, passed in 2006, even first-time offenders remain on the list for 15 years.
Former New Orleans public defender Josh Perry told ColorLines that fighting the charges in court can make things worse. “The way Louisiana’s habitual offender law works,” he said, “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.”