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Trafficking In Vagaries: How A Times Picayune Series That Found Only “trafficking opportunity” In Strip Clubs Paved The Way For A Bourbon Street Crackdown

“Bourbon Street wakes up at dusk,” CC BY-SA 2.0
Lars Plougmann via Wikimedia Commons

Trafficking In Vagaries: How A Times Picayune Series That Found Only “trafficking opportunity” In Strip Clubs Paved The Way For A Bourbon Street Crackdown

A proposal to curb strip clubs on Bourbon Street was introduced last Thursday by a New Orleans city council member, “citing recent reports from | The Times-Picayune on unfettered sex trafficking at the adult venues.” Just a few days after the paper’s first story appeared, Mayor Mitch Landrieu had already hired an attorney to investigate the clubs.

It’s not surprising that a city council member, Stacy Head, wants to limit and eliminate strip clubs through attrition, nor that Mayor Landrieu has directed Scott Bergthold, an attorney who once led a Christian law firm working to oppose LGBT rights, and with a history of working to shut down adult businesses (fighting “the tangible effects of the moral decay which local governments are quick to recognize,” as he told Christianity Today in 1999) to review city policy and criminal law pertaining to strip clubs, under the banner of fighting trafficking — not after the three-part series that ran in their city’s paper, the Times-PicayuneMedia reports of trafficking play a significant role shaping public policy and criminal law; this Times-Picayune series is already no exception. However, the evidence of “unfettered” trafficking in the clubs offered by the paper is thin, and the solutions offered so far could compromise the jobs and safety of the women working on Bourbon Street.

“The French Quarter’s most famous street is a hub for sex trafficking in the city, | The Times-Picayune found in a year-long investigation,” the paper’s editorial board wrote the Sunday after the city council announced a hearing on the strip clubs, in an op-ed titled “New Orleans must stop looking the other way while sex trafficking flourishes.” But the paper’s series referred interchangeably to stripping, selling sex, and trafficking, and concluded, vaguely and without data to support it, that victim advocates and law enforcement told them that French Quarter strip clubs were a “trafficking opportunity.”

This phrase — “trafficking opportunity” — has no meaning. Any business in which labor exploitation is possible (which is a lot of businesses) could likewise be described as a “trafficking opportunity.” The shakiness of this phrase might also explain why the Times-Picayune called the series, “The Track: How sex trafficking has taken hold of Bourbon Street” — even if the series lead reporter, Kevin Litten, conceded, “there has been no evidence that clubs knowingly employed dancers who were victims of human trafficking.” Instead, after a year-long investigation that involved Times-Picayune reporters conducting “14 visits to 10 strip clubs during the past 12 months,” reporters observed not trafficking but what they allege are violations of regulations barring contact between dancers and customers.

“On a visit to Hustler Club in July,” reporter Kevin Litten writes, “a young woman visiting the club was invited onto the main stage with a dancer and the dancer pulled the woman’s top down, exposing her breasts.” But without further reporting, there is no basis by which to claim this act is trafficking, or even a “trafficking opportunity.” This is likely not news to law enforcement; two Louisiana Alcohol & Tobacco Control investigators filed a report in October 2015 saying they observed a uniformed New Orleans Police Department sergeant “flirting and touching” a dancer at a Bourbon Street club. The Times-Picayune cites this incident, but as evidence of what ATC knew about the clubs, not what an NOPD sergeant — who, according to the ATC investigators, club staff said comes to the club “every time he is on shift” — allegedly does in the clubs, in apparent violation of the law.

A crash course for readers and reporters alike: trafficking, as defined by both Federal and Louisiana state law, entails the use of “force, fraud, or coercion” to compel an individual to engage in labor, including sexual labor. The exception to this is when an individual is under the age of 18, in which case there is no burden to prove force, fraud, or coercion. In the state of Louisiana, since August 1, 2016, that age was increased to 21. Anyone in the state who engages in “commercial sexual activity” under the age of 21 is regarded as a victim of trafficking.

In one year of reporting, the Times-Picayune reporters did not themselves document trafficking inside the Bourbon Street clubs. What they did was interview one woman they describe as trafficked, and cite two past cases: a Federal trafficking case involving women forced to sell sex on Bourbon Street, but not in the clubs; and a high-profile murder case that ended with second-degree murder charges, and in which there were allegations that the victim had been trafficked, after working in Bourbon Street clubs.

The series lead reporter, Litten, has since said he interviewed just “six current or former dancers” for this investigation (“I think that number’s right — I may be forgetting someone because I’ve been working on this for a year.”). He also had plans to interview three people who he described as trafficked, he told a Reddit AMA, but only was able to interview one. All three “returned to the life,” as he put it, but he didn’t specify what that meant: were they trading sex for money, or working in the clubs? Were they trafficked again? “I never spoke to victims while they were being trafficked,” he also told the same AMA. “That’s really law enforcement’s job and service providers like Covenant House.” One could argue, in reporting a story allegedly on trafficking, it is also a job for a reporter.

Via email, I asked Litten if he had interviewed the people he thought were again involved in trafficking, and if not, why not. His editor, Carolyn Fox, responded, “Your tone is unprofessional and your questions are leading, which make me question your legitimacy, and if you are trying to write a fair and balance [sic] article.” Litten did not offer a response.

So the Times-Picayune did speak with one person described as trafficked. She is not quoted describing herself as trafficked, but their story says she “said her pimp forced her to dance in clubs, but only made her have sex with customers when she was at home with him.” The woman also told the lead reporter — in his words — “the work at the club felt like an escape from her pimp, who was regularly physically abusive.” As she put it, he writes, “I didn’t feel like it was as bad because I was performing and I had to perform with little to no clothes on but I didn’t have to have sex with people for money.”

But where are the traffickers in the strip clubs, the traffickers that led to the city council crackdown? The Times-Picayune series includes two men described as pimps who were charged with multiple trafficking offenses under Federal law. According to court sentencing documents, Granville Robinson of Memphis pled guilty to one count of “Conspiracy to Commit Sex Trafficking by Force, Fraud or Coercion” and one count of “Sex Trafficking by Force, Fraud, or Coercion” in February 2016, and was sentenced to 294 months in Federal prison.

For ten years after his release, Robinson is forbidden to “possess or use for any purpose, a computer, or television, or other instruments of communication equipped with on-line, Internet or World Wide Web access, or access computers or other forms of wireless communication via third parties,” and he must also register as a sex offender.

Likewise according to sentencing documents, Christopher Williams, also of Memphis, pled guilty to one count of “Conspiracy to Commit Sex Trafficking,” for which he was sentenced to 180 months in Federal prison, and given the same ten years supervision and same prohibitions as Robinson, but additionally, Williams was forbidden to possess pornography, or enter any adult entertainment venue.

Those two cases related by the Times-Picayune did not involve trafficking in the strip clubs; instead, according to the series, the men demanded the women working for them walk the streets nearby. Some strip club management and service staff also reported to the Times-Picayune that pimps would enter the clubs sometimes, but that workers knew who they were, and they were frequently kicked out. As they write, a bouncer told reporters when asked how he knew certain people were pimps, “It was pretty obvious when they say, ‘I’m a pimp.’”

Buried in a story that continuously alleges there is poor enforcement in the clubs which leaves them open to pimps and traffickers, are three other stories:

  • first, of club workers and management telling reporters they kick men they think are pimps out of the strip clubs,
  • then, a story of two men who, as the Times-Picayune reporting states, are collectively serving 39 1/2 years in prison for trafficking outside the strip clubs, and
  • last, a story of one woman reporters describe as a trafficking victim, who reporters write was both forced to dance in clubs and, as they put it, who felt the clubs were “like an escape from her pimp”

The first two stories are examples of how strip clubs do in practice remove people they believe could exploit the women who work there, and of how police and Federal prosecutors enforce anti-trafficking laws around Bourbon Street. Yet in a nearly 12,000 word series on trafficking, the third story — the only story that is actually about potential trafficking in a strip club — occupies only 244 words.

The Times-Picayune reporting team did find her, the one person who they say was trafficked in Bourbon Street strip clubs.

Her story deserves more attention. She doesn’t get it.

Instead, Litten, the lead reporter on the investigation, concludes partway through the series, despite evidence to the contrary in his own reporting: “[W]hat you have now on Bourbon Street: a bull market for sex traffickers.”

This kind of investigative series, purportedly revealing previously unknown, widespread and systematically ignored incidences of human trafficking, is not unique to New Orleans. Similar sensational exposes have driven demand for crackdowns for more than a century in the United States, going back to the days of legal red light districts and the “white slave” panic.

In the journalism of that time, as today, media accounts of alleged trafficking are how the crime of trafficking is defined. But if city governments and law enforcement begin and end their inquiry into trafficking with such imprecise reporting, ignoring the people who should be at the center of these stories, the law will only reinforce these vagaries.

Mississippi Woman Jailed 96 Days Without Attorney Has Fifth Circuit On Her Side

“The district court found this constitutionally permissible. It is not.”

Mississippi Woman Jailed 96 Days Without Attorney Has Fifth Circuit On Her Side

“The district court found this constitutionally permissible. It is not.”

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguably the most conservative court in the country, has ruled in favor of a woman detained in a Mississippi jail for 96 days awaiting trial and “effectively denied bail.” Last week, it overturned a lower court’s decision that holding the woman in jail was “constitutionally permissible.”

The woman at the heart of the ruling, Jessica Jauch, was indicted in January 2012 for allegedly selling eight tablets of Xanax for $40 each in Choctaw County, per a confidential informant’s account. Two warrants for her arrest were subsequently flagged for law enforcement officers throughout the county, directing them to bring her into custody. Three months later, Jauch was stopped by officers from the Starkville Police Department for alleged traffic violations, at which point they learned about the warrants. Jauch was then shuffled to the Choctaw County Jail, where she remained locked up for more than three months.

From the beginning, Jauch was informed by the local sheriff, Cloyd Halford, that she’d have to wait until August to appear before a judge, due to the court calendar. But no bail was set for her pretrial release, and she had no legal representation.

Prosecutors said there was video showing the illegal transaction, thereby verifying the informant’s account. Jauch maintained her innocence throughout her detention, and a lawyer was eventually appointed after 96 days. Bail was also set — an amount that she paid in less than a week — and Jauch’s attorney quickly realized that the evidence the prosecutor had wasn’t damning at all. The footage showed Jauch borrowing money from the friend-turned-prosecutor-informant, and weeks later, the case was dismissed altogether. The informant allegedly worked with the prosecutors in exchange for leniency in her own criminal cases.

In April 2015, almost three years to the day she was jailed, Jauch filed a civil rights lawsuit against the county and sheriff, arguing that she was denied due process. The Northern District Court of Mississippi disagreed. In September 2016, Judge Sharion Aycock said the grand indictment effectively stripped Jauch of her right to a probable cause hearing, where bail would have been set and she could have met with a judge. But last Tuesday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals — which has jurisdiction over Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana — overturned that decision.

“The district court found this constitutionally permissible. It is not,” Judge Thomas Reavely wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel. “A pre-trial detainee denied access to the judicial system for a prolonged period has been denied basic procedural due process, and we therefore reverse the district court’s judgment.”

Thanks to Burke Butler.

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Dispatch: A Light at the End of the Tunnel for Juvenile Lifers in Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, PA, October 25, 2017

Dispatch: A Light at the End of the Tunnel for Juvenile Lifers in Pennsylvania

On Labor Day 2017, Giovanni Jerry Reid of Philadelphia was released from Graterford Prison in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. He had served 26 years of a life sentence without possibility of parole, imposed when he was only 16 years old. On that warm, sunny morning, as he took his very first steps as a free adult, Giovanni was greeted by his family, his friends, and his lawyer in an emotional reunion. Giovanni Reid is not the first, nor will he be the last, “juvenile lifer” to leave prison behind. There is a quiet drama unfolding in Pennsylvania as more than 500 men and 10 women, many now in their 50s and 60s, are re-sentenced. Many will return to their communities.

Pennsylvania is ground zero in the struggle to free the last of the victims of one of the most egregious sentencing schemes of the “tough on crime” era: the sentencing of juveniles as young as fourteen to life without possibility of parole (JLWOP). Pennsylvania sentenced more children to die in its prisons than any other place on earth. Even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory JLWOP was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, Pennsylvania, unlike other affected states, refused to make the ruling retroactive, leaving hundreds of juvenile lifers still serving unconstitutional sentences. It took another four years for the Supreme Court to hold that its ruling in Miller was retroactive, and Pennsylvania was finally compelled to begin the process of resentencing and releasing the hundreds of men and women who had grown up in prison.

As they emerge from what they had always believed would be a sentence of “death by incarceration,” these men and women are reentering a world of cell phones, email, and social media — inventions that existed only in the realm of science fiction when they were locked up. But it’s not only technology that has changed. The past decade has seen the rapid expansion of a new human rights movement led by the formerly incarcerated. And those of us on the outside have been fighting hard to provide those on the inside with the resources they will need to make a smooth transition: housing, employment, education, health care, emotional support, and also the opportunity to join our struggle. We understand how important it is to help our brothers and sisters rebuild their lives, not only out of a powerful sense of empathy, but also to expose the lie upon which mass incarceration is based. The unconscionably long prison sentences that characterize the American criminal justice system have little to do with protecting public safety, and much to do with continuing centuries of racial and class subjugation. Ending JLWOP is just the first act in the much longer drama of radically shortening criminal sentences across the board.

Pennsylvania’s juvenile lifers experienced their first glimmer of hope on March 1, 2005. That was the day the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the execution of people who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed violated the Constitution. A group of juvenile lifers at Graterford Prison took note. Although the ruling in Roper v. Simmons did not directly apply to them, they saw a crack in the previously impregnable wall of death by incarceration in Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. He wrote, “When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.” Couldn’t Justice Kennedy’s reasoning apply to them as well? They started group called Juvenile Lifers for Justice. John Pace, who was released in February of this year after 31 years of incarceration, was one of the founders. “We wanted to keep an eye on the legal landscape and track how the issue of juvenile culpability was evolving,” he explains.

Next came the Graham v. Florida decision in 2010 in which the Court ruled that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide crimes. The crack in the wall got a little bigger. In 2012 the crack became a potential escape hatch when the Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment applied to all mandatory juvenile LWOP sentences. Despite the fact that the Court was silent on the question of whether the Miller ruling was retroactive, the men in Juvenile Lifers for Justice began to plan for their own release. “We wanted to be a good example, to not re-offend, and to create opportunities for each other as we came out,” said Pace. And for that to happen, planning needed to start right away. Based on what they had learned from the lifers and their families, two young lawyers, Lauren Fine and Joanna Visser Adjoian, founded the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project which would be instrumental in guiding the juvenile lifers through the re-sentencing, parole and reentry process.

It took another four years for juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Pennsylvania was one of only four states that did not apply the Miller decision retroactively. But in 2016, the state was compelled to do so when the Supreme Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that its ruling in Miller was retroactive. Finally, the re-sentencing and release of juvenile lifers got underway. As of September 2017, 125 people had been re-sentenced and 76 had been released on parole. They join the more than 300,000 returning citizens in Philadelphia alone.

Paradoxically, the very extremity of the situation in Pennsylvania has given birth to a dynamic and diverse sentencing reform movement, driven in large part by the active participation and leadership of formerly incarcerated people — people like J. Jondhi Harrell, Director of the Center for Returning Citizens and Reuben Jones, Director of Frontline Dads, both of them graduates of JustLeadershipUSA’s Leading with Conviction program. John Pace, who cut his teeth as an organizer while still serving a life sentence, has organized a peer-support group to help his brothers adjust to life on the outside. He explains that they understand very well their responsibility to “do no harm.” Recognizing the incredible potential to bring about radical sentencing reform in Pennsylvania, JustLeadershipUSA held an Emerging Leaders training in Philadelphia last April for 35 formerly incarcerated people, John Pace and other juvenile lifers among them.

On October 25th, hundreds of Pennsylvanians, under the umbrella of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, rallied at the state capitol in Harrisburg, demanding an end to all LWOP sentencing in the state. Pennsylvania has 10 percent of all the people in the country serving life without possibility of parole sentences. They heard a message from Felix Rosado, a member of Right 2 Redemption, an organization inside Graterford prison:

“Life without parole says that in no amount of time and with no degree of effort can 50,000 people across the U.S. — and over 5,000 in PA — ever rise above their worst moment and become worthy of life outside towered walls and razor-wired fences. To be deemed forever irredeemable goes against what it means to be human.”

Glenn E. Martin is the President and Founder of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), an organization dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of In Justice Today.

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