After nearly three hours of discussion, Rep. Mandie Landry, a New Orleans Democrat, voluntarily deferred the bill when she saw it was unlikely to pass.
Though the bill could technically be rescheduled for a later House Administration of Criminal Justice committee hearing, Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, said in committee it’s unlikely they’ll have time for another lengthy debate on the topic this session. Instead, Landry told Gambit she should still have time this session to bring forward a measure that would create a task force — made up of sex workers, law enforcement and health care workers — to study the issue.
“After 3 hours of incredible testimony, it became clear that HB 67 was going to have little support from the committee,” Landry tweeted after shelving the bill. “Deferring in favor of a task force/study resolution retains goodwill with the committee. Disappointing, but change takes time.”
The bill would have kept law enforcement from prosecuting prostitution and other related offenses, as currently defined by Louisiana law, including purchasing commercial sex, soliciting for prostitutes and inciting or promoting prostitution. Trafficking, when someone recruits, transports or solicits another person through “fraud, deceit or force” to provide labor would remain illegal, Landry said.
Supporters of the bill, who collectively testified for an hour and a half, said it would help sex workers who are sexually assaulted during their work feel more comfortable reporting the abuse to the police because they wouldn’t have to have to worry about facing legal consequences for telling authorities they engaged in sex work. Several sex workers shared emotional stories about personally experiencing abuse on the job and feeling like they had little avenues for assistance.
They also pointed out that having a criminal record can affect many facets of a person’s life, including seeking other employment and applying for housing.
“The people who are policed and prosecuted for sex work-related offenses are overwhelmingly people who are poor, women, black, transgender, unhoused or unstably housed,” said Christine Breland, program director for Women with a Vision. “It’s fine that people don’t approve, but that does not mean this labor should be criminalized.”
In addition to the testimony, 109 people submitted “green cards” into the record, signaling their support of the bill.
Opponents of the bill included some religious leaders and some anti-sex trafficking groups who said they worried decriminalization would lead to an increase in trafficking. Seventeen others submitted cards in opposition of the bill.
Sheri Lochridge, the anti-human trafficking team leader for Covenant House New Orleans, a homeless shelter with religious ties, said that while she supports decriminalization of prostitution as defined under state law, she didn’t agree with decriminalizing soliciting, inciting or promoting prostitution.
“We do strongly agree that people who engage in prostitution should not be criminalized, as this only creates additional barriers to often already marginalized populations,” she said. “However … the repeal of laws under this bill, such as soliciting for prostitutes, inciting prostitution, promoting prostitution and enticing persons into prostitution are laws that have been used to protect our most vulnerable populations from traffickers who often prey on them and to bring justice to those who have already been victimized.”
Andrew Lewis, the former coordinator for the Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force, said while human trafficking does occur in Louisiana, there is discrepancy in how it is reported — including what is considered a “confirmed” or “prospective” case.
“Many organizations report human trafficking based on subjective definitions, Lewis said. “If a nonprofit or law enforcement agency believes that all sex work is trafficking, they’ll report it to [the Department of Children and Family Services] as such. This inaccurate information might increase their funding, but it leads to a reduction in funding and attention for our fight to end actual human trafficking.”
While the measure failed, Landry said the Louisiana Legislature was the first in the country to consider a bill to decriminalize sex work.
“[Sex workers] have never ever had their voices heard in this building,” Landry said.