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…
Tabitha has to register an address in the sex offender database, and because she doesn't have a permanent home, she has registered the address of a nonprofit organization that is helping her. 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 very ordinary activities in New Orleans like wearing a costume at Mardi Gras.
Merely an arrest—a conviction isn't required, nor does the arrest need to be sex-related—can add another 15 years to your time on the list. And challenging the charges will only make it worse.
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.
Thanks to John Cole for the tip.