In New Orleans, prostitutes (also known as sex workers, a term that encompasses various forms of sexual favors or acts traded for money, shelter, or other resources/necessities) are not just being charged by the District Attorney’s office with simple solicitation (a misdemeanor) but crimes against nature. Crimes against Nature is a felony charge that provides up to five years in prison, in addition the legislature mandates that the accused register as a sex offender. The legislative intent was to prosecute child molesters, but it is used to prosecute primarily street-based sex workers, a population already destitute and struggling to survive in a city with few public health and anti-poverty resources. The local Police Department and District Attorney’s office have interpreted the statutory phrase “unnatural copulation” to mean anal or oral sex.
What is really interesting is that the arresting officer has the discretion to charge either simple solicitation or crimes against nature and it unclear whether the officers have a protocol for which to charge. One community organization that advocates for the health and wellness needs of under-served women, Women with a Vision, sees these arbitrary prosecutions as part of an overall scheme to prosecute non-violent crimes at a greater intensity than violent crimes, which they see as symptomatic of the criminalization of poverty. Another community organization that advocates for formerly incarcerated persons alleges that only five percent of people held in Orleans Parish Prison are there for violent crimes, but a majority are in there for non-violent offenses, like traffic or municipal violations.
Many lawyers and the media, print and online, have found out what is happening in New Orleans and are doing all they can to change the interpretation of this statute, as well as support community organizations trying to change its enforcement and the lives of those most affected by it. Yet, despite of these ongoing efforts, people are still prosecuted under the crimes against nature statute. Hopefully, this will make us think twice when we read about a “Sex Offender” in our neighborhood.