By Jarvis DeBerry
It's too soon to know what will happen to "Louise," the woman who called last summer to explain why she was refusing to follow Louisiana law and register as a sex offender. But a federal judge's Thursday ruling that the law requiring Louise to register is unconstitutional provides some hope that she and hundreds of others like her will be able to get their lives back on track without being stamped with the state's scarlet letter.
Louise got busted in the French Quarter for offering oral sex for money. She'd been convicted before; so she was made to register as a sex offender.
That's a label that, rightly or wrongly, we reflexively associate with people who take advantage of children. In fact, if you are so labeled, your interaction with children is restricted -- even if your crime was committed with an adult.
About 40 percent of people on the registry in Orleans Parish are there for crimes against nature convictions. About 75 percent of those on the registry for crimes against nature convictions are women.
"I can't even go trick-or-treating with my kids," Louise told me. "I've never molested a child."
Had she been peddling sexual intercourse, she'd have been treated differently. She could have been caught and convicted, caught and convicted over and over again. She'd never have been placed on the state's sex-offender registry, never had a label placed on her driver's license, never would have been told to stay away from children.
It's that disparate treatment that U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman criticized last week. He said the state had failed "to credibly serve up even one unique legitimating governmental interest that can rationally explain the registration requirement."
That's because there was no rationality to it, other than the idea that some sex acts are ickier than others. As individuals, we're all free to make such judgments. But there's no reason the state of Louisiana should have ever punished Louise's crime more harshly.
Lawmakers acknowledged as much last year when they passed a bill authored by Charmaine Marchand-Stiaes that applies the same penalties that exist for prostitution to the crime of solicitation of oral sex. That meant the registration requirement went away.
But even as they acknowledged that the state needed to move in a new direction, lawmakers did not do anything to rescue people such as Louise. You'd think they'd have made it easier for her and others who've overcome their drug addictions to get their lives together, made it easier for them to find decent housing and employment.
But no. Lawmakers did nothing to make their law retroactive. They left hundreds of people to serve out their required 15-years on the registry. Why? Apparently the $37,000 the state would have had to pay every year to analyze the registry was considered too much to bear.
Will Feldman's ruling lead to their names being removed? An attorney for the plaintiffs said she doesn't know. He asked the plaintiffs to submit a proposed judgment.
Deon Haywood sounds hopeful. Speaking for Women With a Vision, a New Orleans nonprofit organization that works with women who struggle with the sex offender label, Haywood said Thursday, "This is an opportunity for healing and new beginnings for many people to have a chance to live a life without being labeled."
Louise called after being arrested in July for failure to register as a sex offender. She was defiant on the phone, but later, when faced with spending two years in prison, she pleaded guilty and was allowed to stay out of jail.
However, the sex-offender label is its own kind of jail. Let us hope that Feldman eventually decides that those trapped by the label deserve to be let go.