On Tuesday, our family lost John Thompson - “J.T.” to all who knew him. Words cannot do justice to the incredible life he lived. Through all the interviews, documentary appearances, and the book, Killing Time (profiling his wrongful conviction), experience on Angola’s Death Row, exoneration, and litigation against the system that tried to murder him… the essence of J.T. is so much more than that.
John was a loving husband and proud father. He was also a soldier for justice, leaving behind his many comrades inside and outside prison walls, on and off Death Rows, in Louisiana and beyond. At VOTE's monthly meeting yesterday, we paid tribute to our brother John, and re-doubled our efforts for justice.
Unlike most any of us, John had his dying breaths on many occasions, having been scheduled for execution multiple times during his 18 years of incarceration. Each time, he thought of others. Each time, trying to help them with their lives after he was gone. Since his release, John’s living breaths were spent seeking justice, particularly to reform a system that allows prosecutors to act with impunity. John founded Resurrection After Exoneration, a transitional house and community space a few blocks down St. Bernard from our VOTE office. He would frequently be spotted on the sidewalk, outside the RAE house, carrying building supplies in one hand and engaged in a heavy conversation with someone who flagged him down. Always peppering his intense insights with humor, almost in defiance of a system that failed to strip John of his humanity.
John knew he was not alone, and he sued the Orleans District Attorney’s Office, claiming they had a pattern of hiding evidence (as they did in his case), and other Brady violations that led to the many wrongful convictions in the nation’s most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated state. Although Thompson v. Connick was successful in the lower courts, the U.S. Supreme Court reinforced the lack of repercussions for prosecutors; they pinned the blame on an individual prosecutor- basically treating the lawyers as independent contractors responsible for their own ethics. In John’s case, it was all-too-convenient that the blame was placed on a deceased member of the D.A.’s Office.
Following John’s case at the U.S. Supreme Court, the Orleans D.A. was a defendant in a similar case of unethical behavior. Seeing the same lawyers for the second time, the Supreme Court judges laid into the lawyer sent by D.A. Leon Cannizzaro to defend their office. They questioned whether the lawyer even understood the Brady Rule (requiring prosecutors to turn over all evidence to the defense, and that they take responsibility for any police misconduct). In that second case, Juan Smith won and came off Death Row. A comment was made to John, suggesting that if his case had gone second he would have kept the $14 million jury award. “Nah,” John replied. “If Juan went first, they would’ve killed him. And then when I come up, they definitely gonna make me lose- otherwise it makes Juan’s case look suspect. At least this way, Juan’s still alive.”
It is not an easy thing to look into the eyes of people who tried to kill you. The incredible courage shown by John, to stand against every death penalty advocate, judges, prosecutors and state legislators, is what we need from all our leaders. The prosecutor who won a death sentence against John, Jim Williams, ironically practices criminal defense law from his office on the West Bank- having spent years taking pride in the men he put on death row, several of whom were later proven innocent. Most innocent people around the country are never able to reach the tip of the iceberg, like John, and prove it. Most either live out their sentences, while some die in prison.
John responded to his exoneration by helping others, and working to prevent the next wrongful conviction. He would call on us all to do that and more.
John demanded we work towards electing officials (including judges and the next District Attorney) who believe in accountability for misconduct and community oversight of our criminal justice system.
John showed us how much we need to work to create strong rehabilitation and reentry programs led by us, for us, to build a community that creates a space for everyone to survive and thrive.
He would want us to fight with all of our morality, civility, creativity and love to abolish the death penalty in Louisiana.
John was a soldier, a brother, and a friend. His joy and power will never be forgotten. We will share more information regarding services, and ways to honor his legacy, as they arise.
Yesterday (05/17/17), House Bill 122, to ban the box on college applications passed out of the House Education Committee with a vote count of 13-to-1
The bill was originally heard a week ago and was met with criticism, but this second hearing really changed the perspective. There were many personal testimonies by directly impacted people like Karla Garner, Dolfinette Martin, and Bruce Reilly.
Annie Freitas, who works with Louisiana Prison Education Coalition, said that “These stories deeply moved not only the Representatives but every person sitting in the room and watching from home. It was truly an amazing experience to see Representatives, who one week earlier had been highly skeptical towards our cause, be brought to tears and transformed by compassion in their understanding of the importance of what we are doing. Not only did we get the bill passed yesterday, but I truly believe that we touched hearts and changed minds. So much so that eight Representatives have already signed on as co-authors and have committed to helping to pass the bill on the House floor next week.”
Yesterday was a phenomenal start, but the journey is not over. Please continue to support our work by signing and sharing the petition:
If you would like to watch the hearing yesterday, follow the link below (start at 00:67):
People who would like to share their stories about getting in, or being denied admission, to college should contact us at VOTE
Needing two-thirds (70 votes) to get through the House of Representatives, because it imposes a fee, this peculiar pay-raise bill got 72. Bi-partisan supporters (see below) include six who are sponsoring bills that contradict the impact of this bill. Some legislators questioned: why didn't it go through the typical budget process? How to deal with other state workers seeking their own raise? And how the money would actually process from the pockets of people under supervision into the pockets of the officers? Good questions for the Senate Committee it is assigned to.
Consider some things the legislators did not know, during debate: First, people are already paying more in fees than the statutory maximum of $63 under R.S. §574.4.2.A.(2)(e). People pay between $67 - $68.50, depending on what process they use to pay the fee. People don’t pay the parole officer, instead they pay a collections agency (Fieldware, LLC) based in Chicago. Fieldware uses typical collection agency practices, such as pretending to actually be the Department of Probation and Parole, calling during dinner time and on weekend mornings.
When asked a straightforward accounting of how the payments would convert to the “retention” of parole officers (i.e. pay raises), the bill sponsor, Lance Harris, did not know. Few Representatives likely know that Fieldware is exceeding state law by collecting two fees, exceeding $63/month. What is to keep Fieldware, LLC from charging $110 if this were to pass?
What if someone can’t pay? “They work it out,” Representative Lance Harris repeatedly responded to that repeated question. This is what was said in Committee. What actually happens is this becomes a lifetime tab, the fee is never reduced, and there is no “ability to pay” assessment. There is no sliding scale, as perhaps the fees for your child’s summer camp, based on your income. So what happens at the end of parole if the fees are not paid? Some stories include a judge extending supervision, others involve a judge waiving the fees and settling the debt. It is unclear, however, what happens over the course of a decade, when nearly a million people will have been under community supervision.
Previously, the parole officers had no personal incentive in collecting the supervision fees. With each parolee being worth a potential $37/month to their department, someone with a caseload of 200 could potentially collect $7200/month. How will this impact parole officer behavior? It remains to be seen.
How will the money transfer?
The state predicts the fee hike will generate $926,554. With 31,000 people on parole, they conservatively estimate each person will pay an additional $30/year of the additional $444 owed. Or more realistically, they figure that 2,085 of the people on parole will pay the full $100/month, while the rest will not. This may be true. However, consider a fee, imposed upon everyone, which only 6% of the people can actually pay. And these are people paying under duress, likely paying more money than they actually have to realistically put towards this bill. And what of the other 94%?
The bill was amended to apply only to those people who are employed, as determined by the parole officers. Interestingly, this amendment did not change the fiscal note at all (which may say more about how accurately the Legislative staff can anticipate fiscal impact). If merely a few dozen more people, based on the increased stress this causes, return to prison: this wipes out the $926k raised by the state.
There are 71,002 people under community supervision, according to the DOC’s latest public report. 40,000 people are on probation, and 31,000 people on parole. A plea is offered and accepted in roughly 95% of all cases, and these officers of the courts can dispense of five or ten of these in an hour. They result in thousands of dollars in court costs, restitution, and fees.
The 31,000 people on parole are overwhelmingly out early based on the programming accomplished during incarceration. 60% are Black and 12% are women. This Good Time Parole Supervision (GTPS) allows people who stay out of trouble and finish rehabilitative programming to convert about a third of their prison time into parole time. Unlike many other states, the time isn’t shaved off completely, in Louisiana (the national prison leader) the time earned is parole time. This is also done by exchanging work wages into parole time; thus, a parolee is likely to be released without even a few hundred dollars saved up- as it is understandable to focus solely on release.
Roughly 75% of people under community supervision committed either a drug or property crime. Someone on parole may have done this years ago. These crimes are often committed by people in poverty. Most people on GTPS will be on it for 3-10 years. Nearly as many people are over 50 years old as under 30.
Every year, thousands of people complete community supervision while thousands new people take their place. Over a million Louisianans have been through some form of this process. Although this bill is aimed at people on parole, it is likely to apply to people on probation next. Currently, courts can sentence people to pay between $60-100 already, in addition to other monthly fees.
Who are the Parole Officers?
The DOC workers demanding a raise “for retention and recruitment” claim too many of them leave for higher paying jobs. The starting wage is close to the “Fight for $15” rate, at $30k per year, and tops out at $62k, with health insurance and retirement. For nearly all of us, there is always a higher paying job option, even a banking executive can be lured to somewhere else on Wall Street.
Officers often have over 150 cases each; some have said over 200. WIth hundreds of cases closing each year, and hundreds more beginning, the typical time associated in between can only be a matter of minutes per month. If parole officer spent an hour per month with the person they monitor, and twenty minutes between each, they could reasonably meet with six per day, 25 per week, or 100 per month. Typically, one day per week is Similar to the jobs of public defender, prosecutor and judge: the people just keep coming and the paperwork can barely keep up. Drive-Thru Justice is the only option.
These officers monitor mistakes as they become known to them. They do not offer proactive support. The officers may provide a list of “service providers” to seek help with housing, mental health, job training or addiction, but the list is inevitably short- and those providers are consistently under-resourced. Helping Louisianans transform their lives into stable pieces of our interconnected society is generally an anti-poverty campaign. It requires public education, public housing, and public health campaigns.
While the parole officers arrived in uniform for two hearings in the House of Representatives, not a single officer showed support for the bills that would support the people on probation and parole. These other hearings were going on all around them, and address parts of the many hurdles faced by people with a criminal record.
For example, they might be familiar with the people who are barred from federal food stamps for a year following their conviction on a drug crime. Many of the mothers, even those who were on SNAP when sentenced to probation would lose support for their children. The officers demanded a pay raise, yet not food for children of the people they monitor.
Some politicians are sending contradicting messages
Representative Tanner Magee, who voted for people on probation and parole to foot the pay raise, also put in bills that would (1) create positive reforms to probation and parole, and (2) mandate “ability to pay” assessments on fines and fees. Yet as he may see in this bill, “ability to pay” is merely a lifetime assessment, and has no bearing on one’s current financial situation. Rep. Magee may wonder why the officers did not show up to support those bills, that would reduce the strain on the people, yet showed up in uniform to get a raise.
Representative Joe Marino, who voted for the pay raise, also sponsored a bill that would suspend child support payments after someone has been incarcerated for over 90 days. As someone who values the need to reduce stress created by insurmountable debts, he may have wondered why the officers were not also in support of his bill that would provide relief for the parents (and their children) who are on parole.
Representative Julie Emerson, who voted for people on parole to pay $105/month, was a victorious sponsor of a bill last year that Banned the Box on unclassified state jobs, and continued her work this year with a licensing bill that will also help reduce barriers for people with a record looking for work. She may have wondered why the officers were not in the May 3rd Civil Service Commission hearing that successfully banned the box on ALL state jobs; or wondered why the officers did not show up for the licensing bill. These officers might have powerful contributions regarding the challenging job searches by the people they monitor. But they only showed up in uniform, holsters at their side, to raise the fees by 50%.
Representative Steve Pylant, who voted for the fee increase, also sponsored bills to (1) increase take home pay for people in Work Release, and (2) create needle exchange programs to push the dire need for prioritizing public health in the face of heroin usage and communicable diseases. Rep. Pylant may wonder why the officers were not in his hearings, particularly so people coming from Work Release would be in better position to pay the higher fees when moving onto parole. Yet they showed up by the dozens for their own pay increase at the expense of the people they monitor.
Representative Sherman Mack, the chairman on the Administration of Criminal Justice Committee and supporter of this bill to increase fees to $100 (plus $5 fee), has been instrumental in moving several Justice Reinvestment Task Force recommended bills through his committee. He may have wondered why the Officers stood by with nothing to say on bills that would support the people who struggle on probation and parole, and only offered an opinion where it came to the fees being increased and transferred to their own paychecks.
Representative Franklin Foil, who supported the fee increase, also sponsored a bill that would mandate the police issue a summons for misdemeanors and low-level crimes, with the discretion to arrest when the situation calls for it. With over half of the new entries to prison coming from the 71,000 people on community supervision, he may have wondered why the officers were not in his hearing offering insights on the low-level criminal activity (that disproportionately results in prison time) by the people they monitor. The officers were crowded throughout the hallways, yet not to be seen on any bills of this kind- except to increase the fees on the people they monitor.
Representative Sam Jenkins, the lone member of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, supported the fee increase, which passed by two votes. With roughly 3500 people under supervision in his district, the majority of whom are Black, with families who vote. It is an interesting vote to cast.
Stay tuned, as this bill will be likely assigned to a committee on Monday.
What else is happening this week in Baton Rouge?
The infamous Juvenile Life Without Parole bill, passed the Senate and a committee in the House, will be heard by the full House. If it passes, the last stop is the Governor’s desk. Although people worked hard to get parole eligibility down from the inhumane 35 years to a still higher than the Southern average (25 years), it isn’t an automatic for nearly 300 people waiting for the Miller v. Alabama ruling to apply to them. The state’s #1 legislators (District Attorneys) successfully pushed for an amendment that would allow them to claim any or all of the 300 are the “worst of the worst,” and seek for JLWOP to be re-imposed following a hearing.
Also on the House floor will be:
On the Senate floor:
Senate Bills 139, 220, 221 (Senate; Monday @4 pm): The cornerstone bills underlying the Justice Reinvestment package are scheduled for the Senate floor. Please call and email your senator to ask them to support criminal justice reform.
Still in Committee:
HEALTH and WELFARE (Room 5):
CRIMINAL JUSTICE (Room 6):
Keep up to date with VOTE's Bill Tracker web page.
When people ask about “mass incarceration” or “criminal justice reform,” it is difficult to explain in one simple sentence, just as it is difficult to wrap up any multi-billion dollar industry that impacts millions of people into one little package with a bow on it. One bill in the Louisiana legislature, however, comes extremely close to simplifying the complex disaster that is the American criminal justice system.
HB302 was heard this week in House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice. The hearing was attended overwhelmingly by about fifty Department of Corrections employees, wearing black shirts, and gun holsters on their waists. Their job is to monitor people under community supervision. They came out in force with a purpose: to demand a bigger paycheck. Watch the full hearing here, beginning at 136:00.
HB302 is not an appropriations bill, nor was it (as Rep. Ted James passionately pointed out) a bill to give raises to state employees. This is a bill to take money from the pockets of people they supervise, and put it directly in theirs. This strange relationship deserves some close scrutiny.
Currently, people under community supervision, i.e. probation or parole, pay $63 each month, or as much of that as they can. The bill proposes to raise that to $100, with the difference going directly to the probation officers. Legislators in committee all remarked at what a tremendous job they are all doing, and what a shame it is they are so underpaid. Nobody spoke about metrics of their job performance though.
How does one measure the performance of a probation officer?
Imagine the scene if the bill passes:
Probation Officer (with gun on hip): Okay Joe, still at the same job?<a href='/uploads/6/4/9/8/64988423/published/probation-fee-service-screen-shot.jpeg' rel='lightbox' onclick='if (!lightboxLoaded) return false'>
Joe (in grease-stained work clothes): Yeah, but I’m still looking for another one, this $7.50 an hour isn’t really getting me anywhere.
Probation Officer: Good thinking. Still living at the same apartment?
Joe: Yeah, but my roommate moved out, and if I don’t find somebody else quick, I’m gonna have to move in with my sister for a little bit.
Probation Officer: Well if you do move, I’m gonna have to approve it first. And I need to run a BCI check on your roommate if you find one. You driving yet?
Joe: Nope. I gotta pay off these court costs first. They want three grand to let me get my license back, but I can’t get to a real job without a license. And I was hoping to maybe go to school and learn a career because I’m good with computers, but I just can’t see that happening with the tight squeeze I’m in right now.
Probation Officer: Right. And how are you doing with your probation fees?
Joe: Well I wasn’t working for the first two months, and then I had to get the apartment and all that, and I don’t really got more than about $20 a month because I’m giving the court $100 month trying to get that license, and these guys from y’all’s collection agency keep calling me bright n early on Saturdays after I been working till two in the morning, like ‘gimme the money, How much money do you have right now. You owe us $971. What can you pay right now;’ And I’m like ‘look man, I’m broke! I’m out here eating Ramen noodles and trying not to do the same shit that got me into this jam, and why are y’all chasing me down like I owe you personally?’
Probation Officer: Well Joe, I know how you feel. We all have bills to pay in the real world. And I’ve got some news for you. They just increased the probation fees to $100 a month.
Joe: What?! A hundred? What are they thinking?
Probation Officer: I know, but what is the alternative? Prison? Would you rather go to prison? Look Joe, you just have to work harder, like the rest of us out here. You should have thought about this before you got into a life of crime.
Joe: Man this just gets harder and harder. Y’all want us to do the right thing yet you just add on more and more bills while my record keeps me out of housing, school, jobs… it’s like you WANT us to fail. I mean, I gotta miss a half day of work just to come see you- and then find out I owe you more money?!
Probation Officer: It’s teaching you responsibility, Joe. You’ve never been responsible. That’s why it feels so hard. But you’re doing good. Keep it up.
What the P.O. neglected to point out is that they went to the legislature and demanded a salary increase off the back of Joe and 71,000 people like him.
The Current Fee Process
Usually, the transfer of money is not as blatant as HB302. When someone is put on probation or parole, their total balance due is calculated by Fieldware, LLC, a collections agency in Chicago. They look at the total number of months someone is scheduled to be on supervision, and calculate a lifetime balance. Someone facing 10 years of parole will be assessed $7560. If they can’t pay, the balance does not come down. There is no “ability to pay” assessment. There is no reduced fee for a certain month. The proposed amount would go up to $12,000.
But that is not all. If Joe pays every month, using the online system, he will also pay a $5.50 transaction fee that goes straight to the pockets of Fieldware, LLC. That would be an additional $660 in fees if the bill passed. These fees exceed the statutory maximum fee, and is blatantly in violation of the law.
The parole officers assure the Committee that nobody is violated for not paying, but Fieldware, LLC will call on nights and weekends, and send out mailings claiming how much they owe. Fieldware, LLC also can not give anyone a clear accounting of what was paid and what is owed. They simply provide a dollar number, and refer questions to your probation officer… who refers back to the collections agency.
One legislator confidently attributed the success stories to these men and women in black. In truth, of all the success stories I am familiar with, not a single one of them would credit their parole officer. I am not aware of any P.O. who got someone a job, or housing, or into college.
If the performance metric for probation and parole officers is “success stories,” perhaps their pay should be based on rates of employment, educational attainment, housing stability, and lack of arrests? If these armed monitors are truly invested in success, why were they not out in force to support voting rights for people under community supervision? Where are they on Ban the Box bills? For housing reform that ends blanket discrimination for people with records? For Banning the Box on college applications? Have they helped anyone get health insurance? Have they accompanied anyone to Family Court to deal with a hefty child support bill and try negotiating their wage garnishment?
If parole officers are to be credited for success, should they also take credit for the failures? Half the people entering prison enter as a violator of community supervision.
The legislators voted 8-7 to approve a raise on the backs of the low-income people they supervise. Coincidentally, the eight white legislators voted to this bill, and the seven Black legislators voted against it. These 71,000 people are facing additional debt stress, and now knowing that their P.O. mobilized the whole office to extract more money from the state’s most impoverished people.
The legislature’s fiscal note anticipates no government expenditures, and estimates $926,544 in “self-generated revenue.” They must anticipate that recidivism will not go up.
People under community supervision are a revenue generator.
Bodies create money for the people who oversee them.
The Prison-Industrial Complex.
This Week’s Legislative Preview:
This week we are likely to see several important bills be heard by the full House or Senate, and then be sent over to the opposite chamber. Once these bills get sent to a committee on the other side, we the people have another opportunity to weigh in with our presence and our testimony.
Juvenile Life Without Parole bills moving forward
The Senate has passed SB16, a bill that would make all juveniles serving Life sentences eligible for parole after 25 years served. The bill is now waiting to be heard in a House committee. On Tuesday, the House Criminal Justice Committee is scheduled to hear HB45, their own version of the JLWOP issue. It is likely they will try to reconcile any differences.
Three bills prioritizing public safety move to the House Floor
Monday May 1st: House is scheduled to debate and vote:
Alternatives to incarceration are important, but HB19 adds “up to 200 hours of Community Service” rather than making it an “in lieu of” jail time for municipal charges. Hopefully, House members will seek an amendment before sending the bill to the Senate side.
On the Senate side, bills to abolish the death penalty (SB142) and to reduce the abuse of Habitual Offender law (SB146) may be heard as early as Monday or Tuesday.
10am House Room 4: House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure will hear HB351, the proposal for a constitutional amendment that denies voters from electing someone with a criminal record.
Tuesday May 2nd: House is scheduled to debate and vote:
Two bills that will streamline flawed parts of the criminal justice system will be heard by the full chamber. Although it does not solve the anti-democracy problem of banning people under community supervision from voting, HB168 will make it easier on people wanting to vote after finishing supervision. Meanwhile, HB83 will move our criminal justice system even closer to the efficiency of a McDonald’s drive-thru. This bill allows for defendants to waive their right to appear in court, and allow for hearings to be held remotely with audio-visual technology. This bill could be amended to where a defendant requests an A/V hearing, as they themselves have determined it is more of an empty ceremony rather than a hearing of consequence, where a person needs to express their full humanity. The slippery slope is if the state seeks to expand the usage, and choosing the in-person hearing is held against a defendant.
9am House Room 6: House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice
Wednesday, May 3rd, at 9 a.m. Ban the Box rule for State Civil Service
The State Civil Service Commission will hold a public hearing on proposed Civil Service Rule 22.4.1.
Where: Louisiana Purchase Room of the Claiborne Building, 1201 N. Third Street, Baton Rouge.
Individuals who wish to comment on this proposal may do so at the public hearing, by writing to the Director of the Department of State Civil Service at Post Office Box 94111, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 70804-9111, or by emailing the Civil Service Commission at email@example.com.
Adoption of the proposed rule will provide the same consideration for both unclassified and classified positions. This aligns with the growing employment movement for Fair Chance for Workers with Records. This rule will formalize a policy that was added to the Civil Service Handbook effective January 1, 2017. Proposed rule 22.4.1 would read as follows:
22.4.1 Criminal History Inquiry
"No state employer, when filling a position in the classified service, may inquire on an initial application form about a prospective employee’s felony criminal history unless it is for a position that has a legal restriction that prohibits employment due to a criminal conviction. However, during the candidate’s interview or after the candidate has been given a conditional offer of employment, the appointing authority or his or her designee may inquire about the candidate’s criminal history."
Join us at the Claiborne Building on Wednesday!
This week, VOTE and allies filled the House Governmental Affairs Committee to weigh in on four bills that impact people with criminal records. Considering that Louisiana leads the nation on percentage of its people who have criminal records, such laws can impact entire families and communities. Unfortunately, the majority of the Committee backpedaled from their positions of a year ago, and now appear staunchly against full citizenship for people convicted of crimes.
Is disenfranchisement a punishment?
“What crimes are we talking about,” asked Rep. John Schroder from St. Tammany. He seemed very interested in determining who, in his opinion, were worthy of having voting rights following a conviction. Such an approach echoes the zeitgeist that developed collateral punishments across every phase of people’s lives. The spirit of ‘worthiness’ is how people with convictions have been denied education, housing, jobs, voting and volunteer opportunities for decades.
There are hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people in every parish under community supervision, to which Rep. Schroder would not want to “soften punishment.” Unfortunately, several legislators appeared to have no desire to encourage successful patterns of behavior while on probation or parole.
The committee appeared ready to vote against HB229, Rep. Pat Smith’s bill that would allow people to vote who are still on community supervision after five years. Rep. Smith voluntarily withdrew the bill to make amendments that strengthen and simplify its purpose.
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” Russell Darrensberg, a VOTE member, testified, “and if he repents, forgive him. Judge not, and you will not be judged. Condemn not, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Watch the full video of the hearing.
The Committee keeps the ”voting rights”question away from voters
In 1974, the People of Louisiana voted for a constitution that did not bar people under community supervision. The constitution they ratified instead allowed the legislature to suspend voting rights for people who are “under order of imprisonment.” That phrase, however, was not defined. A few years later, the legislature decided to suspend those voting rights, and to define “under order of imprisonment” to include people under community supervision. This definition ultimately changed the constitution without being brought to the people.
Our other voting rights bill, HB235, would create a ballot question for the people, forty years after it should have been asked. The proposed amendment was struck down by the committee 5-2. Just like HB229, over 20 cards were in support of the bill, with none opposed. Nobody has spoken out against voting rights, except members of the Committee..
When Rep. Barry Ivey asked Rep. Denise Marcelle (sponsor of HB235) if she also supported sending HB351 (another ballot initiative) to the people, Rep. Marcelle replied:
“I believe that it’s always democracy when it goes to the people. I believe in the people of this state, and I believe they have the ability to weigh those positions.”
To which Rep. Ivey replied “I appreciate your consistency.” Such consistency would not be found by him or four of his colleagues.
Reps. Robert Shadoin, Barry Ivey, Greg Miller, Stephen Pugh, and Michael Dannahay voted against HB235, and to prevent democracy from running its course. Reps. Sam Jenkins and Jimmy Harris voted in favor of letting the people of Louisiana decide on voting rights.
Committee unanimously votes for other amendment on the ballot
In a move that can only be deemed hypocritical, the Committee then voted 7-0 in favor of passing Rep. Miller’s HB351, creating a 15 year waiting period to hold office, following completion of a sentence. The dialogue on this bill spoke highly of “trusting the people,” and yet never once in forty years trusting the people to vote on voting rights.
Ironically, if the Committee really trusted the people of Louisiana, they would trust that no unworthy candidate would be elected to office, regardless of how distant their criminal history. They would not need this bill to protect them.
When Rep. Walt Leger entered the hearing, so the Committee could establish a quorum, he challenged the justification of a 15 year ban, which he views as an additional penalty after someone has served their time and paid their debt.
“It’s not to punish convicted felons, it’s to establish trust in government,” claimed Rep. Miller. To that, Leger, noted that the legislators have a 30% approval rating. He also quickly noted the hypocrisy of denying the voting rights question from the people.
“Right now convicted felons can run for government. They can run for our seats, “Miller said. And perhaps that is proper, in the nation’s conviction capital.
The Committee approves streamlining voting rights restoration
The committee also voted favorably on HB168, which would streamline the process for people to get their voting rights back following a conviction. The current law is unclear on how to register to vote upon completion of a sentence. Most Registrars require a person to bring in official paperwork proving they are not on probation or parole. Although the Department of Corrections currently transmits a monthly report to the Secretary of State listing all the people who are eligible to have their voting rights suspended (due to prison or probation), the DOC does not transmit who has completed their sentence. HB168 would change that, make it simple, and electronically transmit the completion of sentence data.
Contact your representative in the House and ask them to vote yes on HB168.
Keep up with criminal justice bills, with VOTE’s Bill Tracker
Voting RIghts Bills to be heard on wednesday; Over 500 demonstrate at the capitol; and this week's legislative preview
Last week, over 500 people showed up at Louisiana’s State Capitol to call for drastic criminal justice reforms. VOTE filled a bus from New Orleans and united with members of Louisianans for Prison Alternatives (LPA) from across the state. A bipartisan group of legislators are prepared to pass historic legislative reforms. It remains to be seen, however, if they are so watered down as to not budge Louisiana from the national incarceration leader.
Sign our petition to support the Justice Reinvestment work in Louisiana!
Last week we spoke out on needed reforms to the juvenile life without parole bill (SB146), and opposed several bills that create redundant penalties on serious charges, such as a possible enhancement on 198 years for a pattern of robberies (HB301). THe desire to show “tough on crime” chops has not evaporated with the spirit of criminal justice reform.
It was also disappointing to read the amendments to HB615, taking out the provision supported by VOTE (to expand rehabilitative programming to all incarcerated people). Without that, the only remaining piece is allowing the parole board to extend a release date 9 months in order for programming to be completed.
This week, the legislature is hearing many important on Tuesday and Wednesday:
10 ways you can help!
Contact Robert Goodman, VOTE’s statewide organizer, if you would like to testify regarding a certain bill, or would like to be part of a rideshare: Robert@vote-nola.org