The head of Covenant House New Orleans urged the City Council on Thursday to add more teeth to an ordinance barring women younger than 21 from working as dancers in adult establishments.
“I should have come to you sooner. But I’m here today to say, ‘Enough,’ ” Covenant House Executive Director Jim Kelly told council members. “We need to enforce this law.”
The plea followed the death last month of Jasilas Wright, a 19-year-old who danced at Stiletto’s on Bourbon Street.
Kelly said young women who are employed by such businesses often are targeted by human traffickers.
City law prohibits any establishment serving alcohol from having employees younger than 21 “perform on stage as a dancer while such a person is unclothed” or exposing certain body parts.
Kelly, who helped to pass the law two decades ago, said it was designed to “protect and safeguard our kids.”
“What we have learned over the course of the last year is that this law is not being enforced or followed by the strip joints,” Kelly said. “Either they’re flouting the law or they don’t know it.”
Kelly suggested that the law should be toughened to provide that violators will be shut down for one week after a first violation, for one month after a second and for a year after a third. He said the New Orleans Police Department, Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and Department of Finance’s Bureau of Revenue all should have a hand in enforcing the law.
Covenant House New Orleans provides food, shelter, clothing, medical attention and other services for homeless, runaway and at-risk youths under age 22.
Kelly recounted the tales of Covenant House residents who have reported being trafficked for sex or working as sex workers.
Council members agreed that the existing law may need to be updated to include stiffer penalties for violators. Councilman Jason Williams said penalties that hit a business in the pocket might be “very helpful in encouraging self-enforcement.”
Councilwoman Stacy Head said she will ask the administration to submit a report to the council’s Governmental Affairs Committee within 60 days explaining how various city offices will do a better job of enforcing the law going forward.
Head also asked Kelly to recommend any legislative changes that would make the law better and easier to enforce.
Wright’s body was found on Interstate 10 in Metairie in June hours after she left Stiletto’s. She had died of blunt-force injuries caused by traffic on I-10.
Wright’s supposed boyfriend, Adam Littleton, was jailed on accusations of kidnapping and second-degree murder in her death. Authorities say he refused Wright’s request to stop his car and let her out before she decided to jump out on Interstate 10 in Metairie, at which point Littleton kept driving.
Wright’s friends and co-workers said Littleton was a pimp who would arrange dates for the young woman as an escort.