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In ‘Anti-Trafficking’ New Orleans Strip Club Raids, Police Make No Trafficking Arrests

NOPD Chief Michael Harrison and Louisiana ATC Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard at a press conference touting the raids.
NOPD Facebook

In ‘Anti-Trafficking’ New Orleans Strip Club Raids, Police Make No Trafficking Arrests

The New Orleans Police Department, the Louisiana State Police, and the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) have raided eight French Quarter strip clubs in the past 10 days. At a Monday press conference, both NOPD and ATC claimed the raids were the result of a multi-month, ongoing “human trafficking” operation, yet they also admitted they made no trafficking arrests, nor did they identify any victims of trafficking.

Instead, what the ATC alleged occurred inside the French Quarter strip clubs was not trafficking, but 28 counts of violating an administrative statute that forbids liquor license holders from “permitting any prostitute to frequent the licensed premises or to solicit patrons for prostitution.”

Of the arrests, ATC Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard said, “Prostitution in and of itself is sex trafficking.”

But prostitution is not trafficking. Trafficking, as it is defined by the state of Louisiana and under federal law, requires force, fraud, and coercion; prostitution does not. In the same press conference, New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Michael Harrison admitted that he does not believe prostitution and sex trafficking “are one and the same.”

The raids on French Quarter strip clubs come after a multi-year campaign, led by youth homeless services agency Covenant House New Orleans, to link stripping with sex trafficking, an effort also backed by state and city lawmakers. During the recent raids, undercover agents entered the clubs, and according to ATC’s notices of license suspension, “observed a dancer known as [redacted by IJT] fully exposed [sic] her breast [and] vagina.” At another club, undercover agents said three different dancers “did touch, caress, or fondle [the undercover agent’s] genitals while employed at licensed premises.” Such conduct however, is not evidence of trafficking.

As a result of the raids, ATC suspended eight clubs’ alcohol and tobacco licenses, leading establishments such as Rick’s Cabaret and Rick’s Sporting Saloon, which have a common owner, to close their doors until their licenses are restored. Robert and Chloe Watters, the owners of those clubs, told In Justice Today they have 150 employees and more than 1,000 contract workers across both clubs.

Lyn Archer, an organizer with Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers (BARE), a group led by local dancers, slammed the raids. “We question the real motives behind such an effort,” she says, “and the lack of cohesion between departments, who each defined both ‘prostitution’ and ‘trafficking’ differently.”

At the press conference, NOPD Superintendent Harrison said the undercover investigations and raids were meant to be a “first step” to “end human trafficking.” And ATC Commissioner Marine-Lombard said, “We have no issues with the dancers.” But Penthouse Club dancer Devin Ladner tells In Justice Today that’s not how it feels for women working at the few clubs still operating in the city. “It’s a complete mess of paranoia,” she says. “Every single girl is paranoid and worried.” Even though the Penthouse Club was not raided, Ladner says, “I have never felt scared to go to work before … now I feel terrified.”

Another woman, who was working at Rick’s Saloon during the raid, provided a statement to BARE, later shared with In Justice Today. “In all honesty, it [was] the most degrading experience of my adult life, and I’m a dancer,” she wrote. “After it was over, I witnessed women weeping until they vomited. We gathered together and held each other after the raid, as some were profoundly shaken by the events of the evening.”

NOPD Superintendent Harrison said his agency’s mission was to protect women victimized by human trafficking — though the raids failed to identify any — but dancers say it was his department’s raid that victimized women. That’s certainly how the dancer at Rick’s Saloon during the raid described it to BARE. “To have grown men watch me dress and undress without my consent,” she wrote, “to photograph me half-naked on their personal cell phones, to laugh in our faces as we wept, and to corral us, like cattle, in areas with no cameras present is completely dehumanizing.”

Lyn Archer of BARE considers the approach dangerously misguided. “The raids have led to zero arrests of pimps, and zero instances of violence against women, other than those perpetuated by their own officers,” she says. “Bourbon Street workers could offer critical and sensitive information and help to uncover and stop violence, if only law enforcement could foster trust by demonstrating they are capable of treating us with respect.”

After New York Sues Opioid Manufacturers, Drug Policy Experts Warn That Legal Action Won’t Save Lives

Mayor de Blasio (@NYCMayor) on Twitter

After New York Sues Opioid Manufacturers, Drug Policy Experts Warn That Legal Action Won’t Save Lives

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear filed lawsuits last week against several pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue Pharma and McKesson Corporation, that manufacture and distribute opioid pain relievers, alleging that they are getting rich to the tune of $13 billion annually from an overdose crisis that kills 120 people each day.

“By suing Big Pharma, we will make them pay for the lives they’ve destroyed,” Mayor de Blasio tweeted on January 23. “We’ll force them to change their behavior and stop endangering Americans. This is a health emergency and New York City will hold Big Pharma accountable.” Similarly, Kentucky AG Beshear said his state is suing pharmaceutical companies like McKesson for “knowingly and intentionally” distributing huge quantities of opioids in small Kentucky towns, which he described as “reckless behavior [that] fueled our catastrophic drug epidemic that every community is facing.”

Nearly 200 similar lawsuits have been filed by cities and counties across the country, and they’ve become a relatively easy way for politicians to look like they’re addressing the crisis. But doctors, lawyers, and public health experts interviewed by In Justice Today are skeptical that such lawsuits are the best way to improve the conditions of people suffering and dying from addiction.

“In a state or large city like New York, there are a lot of regulatory and legislative levers you could be pulling” to address the overdose crisis, such as expanding access to medication-assisted treatment, says public health lawyer Corey Davis, deputy director at the Network for Public Health Law. “And that could happen much more quickly. Laws and regulations are also enforceable, and a much surer bet than suing a bunch of opioid manufacturers and distributors, hoping at some point you get money.” It could be years before a settlement between states and opioid companies is reached.

While de Blasio supports distributing the overdose-reversal drug naloxone and expanding access to treatment, he also favors a war on drugs approach to the crisis, which advocates say takes resources away from implementing proven public health solutions. As for Kentucky, the state does not let Medicaid pay for methadone — a substitute drug that has been used since the 1970s to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms and cravings — resulting in financial barriers that prevent low-income people from receiving addiction treatment.

In a recent paper, “Reducing Harm Through Litigation Against Opioid Manufacturers? Lessons From the Tobacco Wars,” Davis and his colleagues argue that a big cash settlement with opioid companies “would likely not be the most effective solution for reducing future harm to the states’ citizens.” While the 1997 tobacco settlement — known as the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement — led to some successes, like restrictions on advertising and the launch of public awareness campaigns about the harms of tobacco, it’s unclear whether it achieved its stated goal: reducing smoking rates and improving public health.

Davis and his colleagues contend that it’s more likely that increases in cigarette prices, thanks to higher taxes on the product, caused declines in smoking. Unlike tobacco, opioids are FDA-approved medications that play a vital role in pain management. “These are products that do good,” Dr. Jeff Singer, a surgeon and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, told In Justice Today. “They are medications, and a totally different case than tobacco.” Singer says these lawsuits look like grandstanding by politicians “who want to appear to be taking action.”

Another major difference between tobacco companies and pharmaceutical companies is the complicated supply chain. Before pills reach the hands of patients, they must be prescribed by a doctor and then purchased at a pharmacy, often involving an insurance company payment. Those pills arrived at the pharmacies via distribution companies like McKesson, and were manufactured by companies like Purdue. With all of these intermediaries, should companies bear responsibility because some patients die after taking the prescribed drug or divert the medication to the black market?

After all, the vast majority of prescription painkiller deaths involve diverted medication that was used illicitly. Indeed, Singer points out that it’s heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl — neither come from a prescription — that are driving the overdose crisis. In 2016, almost three-quarters of overdose deaths in New York City involved heroin or illicit fentanyl. Similarly in Kentucky, over 80 percent of deaths involved heroin or fentanyl during 2016. “Collecting billions from opioid manufacturers isn’t going to stop nonmedical users from doing heroin,” Singer said.

Dr. Stefan Kertesz, a primary care doctor and opioid safety team member at the University of Alabama Birmingham School of Medicine, has a different concern. “If these cases hang on portraying every patient with chronic pain as falling prey to something that’s fundamentally harmful, they will tend to spur a continuing stampede of abandonment of these patients,” he says. “It’s not civilized to traumatize the most disabled people in America in the name of averting a public health crisis. Normally you protect those people.” Kertesz says he’s happy to see corporations punished for law-breaking, but “I don’t know whether that is going to save lives in the coming year.”

While Kertesz worries that the rhetoric against pharmaceutical opioids harms vulnerable patients, he thinks the lawsuits are worth it if settlement money helps local governments recoup spending on efforts like expanding treatment.

Mayor de Blasio is right that the overdose crisis is a health emergency. But state and local officials need to focus on actions they can take now, like hosting supervised injection sites and expanding access to medications that treat opioid addiction. A real, non-carceral, public health strategy must be implemented on opioids — the opposite of de Blasio’s NYPD approach on marijuana. Otherwise, they are repeating the empty gestures of the crack era, when officials offered false promises of solving social problems through the court system and mass incarceration.

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Cyntoia Brown and the Years Lost by Juvenile Lifers

Cyntoia Brown and the Years Lost by Juvenile Lifers

In The Princess Bride, Prince Humperdinck has Wesley strapped to a device known as The Machine, which has a lever that can be raised from 1 to 50. When the lever is turned to 1, the machine sucks away one year of the victim’s life, with each tick of the lever corresponding to another year taken away. In 2010, Deborah LaBelle brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of twelve Michigan prisoners who had been given mandatory life without parole sentences based upon crimes committed when they were children. During the course of the litigation, as clients kept dying, LaBelle realized that she was confronting a real world example of The Machine.

The average life expectancy of a person born in the United States is about 79 years. The United States Sentencing Commission has calculated a life expectancy for all prisoners of 64 years and uses that number for sentencing decisions. LaBelle, the Project Director of the ACLU of Michigan Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, dug into the numbers of Michigan prisoners given life sentences. For adult lifers, life expectancy dipped to 58.1 years. And then there were juvenile lifers, the population LaBelle was representing in her lawsuit. For that group, life expectancy was lower still: 50.6 years. Put simply, when a young person is given a life sentence, she has, on average, more than a third of her life sucked away.

Death penalty advocates make a lot of hay out of the fact that only 58 countries still have capital punishment, with a mere five nations, including the United States, accounting for 95% of executions worldwide. But the American sentence of juvenile life without parole is even more aberrational. In 2008, Connie de la Vega and Michelle Leighton from the University of San Francisco School of Law studied juvenile sentencing laws from across the globe. Their conclusion: The United States is the only country in the worldthat imposes a sentence of juvenile life without parole.

Four years after this study, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark opinion in Miller v. Alabama. Based upon findings from psychology and brain science showing fundamental differences between the brains of adults and children, the Court held that juveniles cannot be given mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole. Instead, this country’s second highest punishment can only be given to a child after an individualized sentencing hearing that takes into account factors such as her upbringing and capacity for change.

As things stand today, half of all states and the District of Columbia have gone further, actually or constructively banning the juvenile life without parole sentence. In many other states, there is an option to give a juvenile a sentence that allows for the possibility of release after serving 20 or fewer years in prison. In some other states, that number is 25 or 30 years. That leaves just four states in which a young person who commits murder has no hope of release until spending more than 30 years in prison.

As has been demonstrated by the case of Cyntoia Brown, Tennessee is the biggest outlier. Cyntoia was born to a mother who drank a fifth of hard liquor nearly every night of her pregnancy and didn’t see a doctor until the day that Cyntoia was born. After Cyntoia was born, her mother soon abandoned her before returning to kidnap her from her new guardian, and Cyntoia would ping pong among parents throughout her childhood while suffering from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

In 2004, at age 16, she was repeatedly raped by her friend’s boyfriend and physically and sexually abused by a man named “Cutthroat” who forced her into prostitution. One night, she went to a local Sonic, which was known as a hot spot for prostitutes. There, she was approached by 43 year-old Nashville real estate agent Johnny Mitchell Allen. She gave him a price of $200 for sex. He countered with $100. They met in the middle. He bought her some food from Sonic and took her to his house.

Cyntoia says she felt uncomfortable while at Allen’s house, which was packed to the gills with guns, and she used one of them to fatally shoot him after she thought he was reaching for a gun to shoot her. The State claimed the murder was premeditated, using the fact that Cyntoia stole Allen’s wallet, some of his guns, and his truck after the shooting. Cyntoia contends she was acting in self-defense and that she was disoriented after the shooting and fearful that Allen was still alive and would track her down.

After Cyntoia was convicted of first-degree murder, there were only two sentencing options, the same options that still apply for all young homicide offenders in Tennessee: (1) life without parole; and (2) life with the possibility of parole after serving a minimum of 51 years. Cyntoia was given the latter sentence, meaning she will almost certainly die in prison. Despite being described as a model inmate who has earned an Associate’s Degree and is working toward a Bachelor’s Degree, she has no hope of being released until she’s 68 years old. That’s nearly 18 years past the life expectancy for juvenile lifers found by Deborah LaBelle in her study. Indeed, in her study, LaBelle was aware of only one juvenile lifer who had reached age 68: he’s confined to a wheelchair and has been in permanent hospital care for many years.

There is, however, hope on the horizon. Last year, Tennessee legislators proposed a bill that would end juvenile life without parole in the Volunteer state and allow for the possibility of release after 15 to 20 years. That bill never made it to a vote, but it should be reintroduced this year and has the support of Democratic Representative Raumesh Akbari and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators. But this is also a bipartisan issue. Doug Overbey and Jeremy Faison, the representatives who initially introduced the bill, are both Republicans, and allowing for the possibility of parole for juvenile lifers is a fiscally conservative issue. It’s estimated that every year an inmate spends in prison costs a state $25,000, meaning that an inmate like Cyntoia serving 51 years would cost the state of Tennessee $1.275 million. Unless the law is changed, it will also almost certainly cost Cyntoia her life.

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