Maggie McNeill was in a hotel bedroom in 2005, massaging her client’s back as usual, she said, when someone knocked on the room door. Despite Ms. McNeill’s protests, her client jumped up from the bed, rushed to the door and opened it. One by one, 15 men filed into the room, frightening Ms. McNeill, who thought she was going to be gang-raped.
Then she saw a middle-aged man wearing a business suit and realized what was going on: Her client was an undercover detective; the men entering their room, law enforcement officers.
Ms. McNeill fussed with the officers while they arrested her for prostitution, a misdemeanor, and for solicitation, a felony at the time. A solicitation conviction would require registration as a sex offender for a minimum of 15 years.
Officers hauled Ms. McNeill downtown to Orleans Parish Prison, where she was booked. She eventually called her husband, who called her lawyer, who happened to be a friend of an influential judge. Less than 30 minutes later, Ms. McNeill said, she was released. A few hours later, she did another escort call.
The solicitation charge was eventually dropped. She pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of prostitution, paid a $300 fine and had her record expunged so that future employers would not know about her arrest.
Ms. McNeill was luckier than most who were taken into police custody in 2005: She narrowly escaped being convicted as a sex offender, a fate that befell hundreds of sex workers whose mugshots were posted on the state’s sex offender registry, and whose state IDs were branded with the red label “sex offender.” McNeill is an author’s pseudonym; she founded the Honest Courtesan blog and wrote “Ladies of the Night,” short stories based on her former work.
In Louisiana and across the nation, experiences like Ms. McNeill’s are rare in the sex trade, according to sex workers and advocates, who say that race and income often determine who will be caught in the criminal justice system and how they are treated.
The majority of people arrested for prostitution in the United States are poor, non-white, street-based sex workers who experience the most harm from incarceration and are stigmatized for their work, advocates say.
The laws instituted to prevent prostitution often cause more harm than good, advocates say. It is one of the reasons a district attorney, a public defender, a judge, a probation officer and an advocacy group came together to create the first prostitution diversion program in the state, set to begin June 1.
Under the new program, people arrested for sex work can choose to take part in a personalized regimen of up to 12 weeks. The program, which will vary depending on the needs of each person assessed, will include referrals for housing, résumé building, budget management and counseling instead of jail time. It will be tested for one year, serving about 25 people.
People in the diversion program will still have an arrest record, which they can try to get expunged. But the criminal case against them will be dismissed. The program’s intent is to end the cycle of repeat jail time served by primarily poor, minority-group sex workers, said its facilitator, Jee Park, the special litigation counsel for the Orleans Public Defenders.
“We’re seeing sex workers as people who need to be helped and not people who need to be sent to jail,” Ms. Park said. She started the program using a grant from the American Bar Association’s Racial Justice Improvement Project, an initiative to reform policies that create racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
The diversion program’s aim is to reduce the harm that some sex workers experience from being locked into the criminal justice system. But sex workers will still face obstacles due to their arrest. An arrest record often bars them from alternative jobs, said Ashley Bernal, a coordinator at Women With a Vision, a nonprofit organization that has worked with New Orleans sex workers for more than 23 years. The organization spearheaded a campaign to educate the Legislature about the disparate outcomes for solicitation convictions.
Ms. Bernal said that besides being hindered by an arrest record, sex workers in Louisiana have faced a slew of major hurdles. Among those is the law Ms. McNeill was initially charged under, formally known as Crimes Against Nature by Solicitation, which until last year publicly branded some sex workers as sex offenders for life.
A Crime Against Nature
Louisiana’s Crimes Against Nature law goes back to 1805, when it was created to target acts of “unnatural carnal copulation,” defined as anal or oral sexual intercourse. In the 1980s, the law was expanded to target prostitution in the French Quarter. A person convicted of soliciting anal or oral sex had to register as a sex offender for at least 15 years. Two convictions forced the person to register as a sex offender for life. In 2010, the penalty for a first solicitation conviction was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor; the sex offender requirement for one conviction was also removed. In 2011, all differences between a CANS conviction and a prostitution conviction were removed, and people convicted under CANS were no longer required to register as sex offenders.
“This was a major milestone,” said Alexis Agathocleous, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Still, some 700 people, 80 percent of them African-American women, remained on the sex offender registry. They were not allowed to go to their children’s school, because the statute made no distinctions among pedophiles, rapists and sex workers, Ms. Bernal said. Some lost jobs and were denied access to public assistance programs.
“It created a large barrier between our clients and their ability to get on with their lives,” Mr. Agathocleous said. With the staff of Women With a Vision, Mr. Agathocleus’s organization filed a pair of lawsuits against the state of Louisiana, and in 2013, people convicted under CANS were removed from the sex offender registry.
But many sex workers and former sex workers who were named sex offenders are still reeling from the residual effects of carrying the label. “You’re not getting a job because you were listed at some point as a sex offender,” said Deon Haywood, the executive director of Women With a Vision.
Such biases are primarily felt by black women and transgender women of color since they historically have bore the brunt of anti-prostitution legislation, Ms. Haywood said. They are profiled as well as targeted for prostitution arrests by the New Orleans Police Department, the Department of Justice found.
Ms. Park, from the Orleans Public Defenders, said her attorneys had worked on roughly 600 prostitution cases in New Orleans over the last two and a half years, with an overwhelming majority of the people arrested being black.
Ms. McNeill said she was aware of the racial disparities at play and how she might have benefited from them.
“Being white and middle-class with good connections, I was able to sweep my arrest under the rug, with no more consequences than some small loss of time and money and a bit of public humiliation,” she wrote in an email. “My effects were orders of magnitude below those experienced by poor street workers.”
Another Anti-Prostitution Bill
Advocates say legislation wending its way through the Legislature might lead to more street-based sex workers being targeted for arrest and incarceration. If House Bill 1158 becomes law, the police would have more leeway to arrest people for prostitution because they could stop anyone asking for money or a ride based on their suspicion that the person is selling sex. Currently, the police must catch a person in the act, overhear a prostitution deal being made, be tipped off by someone involved in the trade or launch an undercover sting operation.
Rep. Austin Badon said he proposed the bill because prostitution is “a quality-of-life issue.” In eastern New Orleans, on Chef Menteur Highway, prostitutes and their pimps are seen “at any and all hours of the day” while children are coming and going to school, Mr. Badon said.
“It’s extremely indecent,” said Mr. Badon, who lives in the neighborhood. “Law enforcement officers needed something to harass these individuals and get them out of our community. They needed a new mechanism.”
But Ms. Haywood, at Women With a Vision, said more policing would not improve the quality of life of sex workers. “It’s not that black women or trans people are using more drugs or committing more crime,” she said. “It’s that we live in more areas that are heavily policed.”
Ms. Haywood said officers in the New Orleans Police Department have been removed from the force after being arrested and convicted of rape and abuse of sex workers, a finding backed up by the Department of Justice in its investigation of the department.
She said many abuses experienced by sex workers would be addressed if prostitution were decriminalized.
“One of the main goals at Women With a Vision is to make sure that sex workers maintain their human rights,” Ms. Bernal said, “and that’s a right to their body and the self agency to make decisions concerning themselves and their families.”
This dovetails with Ms. McNeill’s experience of her industry. She said she got into sex work because she had a tremendous amount of debt to pay off and found that she enjoyed the work itself. “I was promiscuous already so it wasn’t like some line to cross.”
Like Ms. McNeill, J., who asked that her name not be used, said she worried that the diversion program assumes that all sex workers want to leave the trade. J., a former New Orleans escort who now works independently in California, does not wish to leave and would prefer that sex work be seen as a viable form of labor rather than something to be diverted from.
“It’s something that’s created a lot of internalized shame and fear,” she said of her own arrest in Jefferson Parish some years ago. “It’s definitely become kind of a dirty little secret.”