Local Bishop and movement ally Joe Morris Doss asked members of the Felony Classification Task Force to consider morality and justice in a moving testimony on Friday, January 5.
In honor of the late and great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and this day commemorating his life, VOTE shares the following compelling testimony of Bishop Joe Morris Doss, who, like Dr. King, is a faith leader and freedom fighter. These poignant and truth-telling words were shared before the state-appointed members of the Felony Classification Task Force on Friday, January 5. The Task Force seeks to bring order and clarity to the list of more than 700 crimes considered felonies in Louisiana.
“I wish to make a statement about the fundamental power and purpose of law, one that I believe is offered as a legitimate voice of the mainstream Christian faith community of Louisiana. Then, I want to leave you with one question, among so many, but it is a question relative to sentencing and incarceration that I pray you will seriously and carefully consider in your deliberations: When is it right, just, and most effectively workable for the purposes of law, to continue to incarcerate someone who has been rehabilitated?
Premise #1: The Purpose of the Law
The purpose of the law is to create, establish, and maintain a moral order of society, and where violated to restore it.
A democratic society is constantly working to discover and fashion the order of society it considers moral. Those adhering to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions seek an order reflective of the compassion, righteousness, and justice of God. Christians specifically seek an order that reflects the mind of Christ and is most transparent to the kingdom of God.
Premise #2: The Power of the Law
The power of the law is in its symbolic clout. It points to what is considered moral: to the unity and orderliness of society, to what is truly important to society, to the degree to which certain behavior will not be tolerated in society, and to its power to curse.
For example, in criminal law the sanctions to be imposed for violation of different laws indicate the extent to which an offender will be judged by society. A fine tells potential offenders that they should obey a particular law, but a felony conviction imposes a significant curse on the moral behavior of the offender, and makes her or him an outcast. The law does not work as effectively as a deterrent – not nearly so – in reliance on punishment. A better deterrent is the threat that an offender will genuinely experience the curse or censure of one’s peers, family, friends, circle of society.
The ultimate power of the law is in its ability to restore the moral order after it has been violated; the most effective restoration is reconciliation of the offender to society as a body.
Premise #3: The necessity for justice in the execution of the law
The law must be just and it must be exercised (and this includes it’s correctional systems) with that justice reflective of the moral order it establishes and protects. If so, the citizens are far more likely to respect, cooperate and obey the authorities and the law itself.
If the order of society is sufficiently moral, and justice is applied with equality and fairness for all citizens, the vast majority will be motivated to cooperate with one another and act within the established bounds of law. When the law is applied unequally, with prejudice or malice or insufficient regard for classes, communities, and categories of the citizenry – such as may be defined by race, poverty, or sexuality – the law will not operate effectively within them. In such communities or segments of society, offenders are far less likely to experience the curse of their peers or feel like an outcast when convicted of a crime.
Premise #4: The power of the law to shape the human hearts of society
To the extent that law reflects an order of society that (1) is genuinely perceived as moral and (2) is applied equally and with fairness for all citizens, it is a remarkably powerful tool for challenging and reshaping the opinions, the philosophies, and even the hearts of citizens.
Premise #5: The power of the law to teach immorality
Insights concerning the purpose and power of the law have an underside that has to be recognized and guarded against vigilantly: Immoral law teaches immorality. As one of the guardians of what is moral and of what will make the order of society genuinely moral, of what will best conform society to the mind of Christ, the church is called to be vigilant against acquiescence to that which is immoral and most especially when it is established in law.
One crucial question this poses before you, and the question I leave you: When is it right, just, and most effectively workable for the purposes of law, to continue to incarcerate someone who has been rehabilitated?”
Joe Morris Doss is a bishop of the Episcopal Church and a member of the Louisiana Bar. He has served parishes in Lake Charles, New Orleans, Palo Alto, California, and New Jersey. He has also spent ample time in courts and in the halls of justice, receiving two honorary doctorates for his work outside the strictly institutional lines of the church.
VOTE kicked off this past weekend by taking a trip to the State Capitol to deliver an important message. VOTE members from New Orleans, Baton Rouge and beyond came out in the dozens on Friday afternoon, speaking truth to power at the most recent Felony Classification Task Force meeting.
Louisiana has more than 700 crimes that are considered felonies, yet there is no organized system to ensure uniformity and sentencing by felony type. The Task Force was created as an attempt to bring order to the hodge-podge list of felonies, so that families, lawyers, and judges have more guidance on sentencing ranges. Because the task force is primarily comprised of attorneys appointed by the State, VOTE members felt it was important for the attorneys to hear directly from people most impacted by their decisions.
Many formerly incarcerated people gave touching testimonies about their experiences of being incarcerated and why they believed their sentences were far too harsh. Fox Rich--a local formerly incarcerated woman who hosted the Facebook livestream of our recent First Annual Formerly and Currently Incarcerated Women and Girls Day march--spoke of how her husband and his nephew, who are both still incarcerated, were sentenced to an extremely long sentence for a nonviolent charge.. Another VOTE member, Adinas Perkins, spoke about how her former drug usage led to a prison sentence, yet what she really needed was rehabilitation. “It ain’t necessary that judges have to sentence all these people to prison just because they are addicts,” she said. “Actually they're sick.” Perkins now is an integral member of her community, helping out and sharing her story wherever and whenever she can.
The Task Force began meeting in September and has only one meeting remaining before they present their final report and possible legislative recommendations. VOTE intends to see the Task Force birth a rational felony classification system, and especially wants to see an armed robbery charge returned to sanity, which would mean reducing the maximum sentence from 99 years down to 40 years. VOTE will reject any proposal that will increase mass incarceration by lengthening sentences or creating new mandatory minimums.
Friday’s action is one of many that aim to serve formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones. As VOTE gears up for the legislative session beginning in just a few months, we need all hands on deck to show up and make our presence known. We will continue to fight for criminal justice reform and resist any attempts to roll back last year’s reforms.
-March 2: Statewide Summit, 10:30am - 2:30pm, Southern University, Baton Rouge.
-March 27: Lobby Day, Time TBD, State Capitol, Baton Rouge
We’ll gather to bring the calls for criminal justice reform to the legislature. Last year, more than 600 people turned out. This year, we want to triple our numbers! Invite your friends!
Last Friday, VOTE organized the first annual Formerly and Currently Incarcerated Women and Girls Day, our largest-ever public march and rally. VOTE Lead Organizer Dolfinette Martin spearheaded the event with the intention of lifting up the experiences of incarcerated women and girls, whose voices are usually left out of decarceration conversations. The event drew hundreds from near and far, including formerly incarcerated women from Florida, Arkansas, Illinois and Massachusetts who shared their stories in front of City Hall, where the march ended. A Facebook recording of the march can be found here.
Women and girls are the glue that hold our families together but are demonized, oppressed and stripped of their dignity for their suffering. When they are taken out of the home it affects the entire community. Women and girls entering the system are victims of abuse, violence, trauma and poverty. They turn to drugs for healing and theft for survival. They are our sisters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, cousins and neighbors. “We are so much more than our past but because of our past we are so much more,” said Martin, recalling her own multi-year separation from her five children. “Society sees our convictions but they never see our tears.”
Louisiana still has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ranking 7th in the world for incarcerating women, and Greater New Orleans is the most incarcerated population in the state. Since 1984 the rate of incarceration among women increased by 700%, with Black women incarcerated at twice the rate of white women. Together we can change the narrative and bring fundamental reform to this oppression!
VOTE centers the experiences and needs of formerly and currently incarcerated people.
Earlier this week Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards implemented an Oversight Council that will continue to accelerate the work of the existing Justice Reinvestment Task Force. The eleven appointees of the Council will track and advise on policy changes required by the Justice Reinvestment legislation, bring together a wide array of criminal justice stakeholders, and make investment recommendations that aim to improve public health and safety. This Oversight Council is a positive step from the Governor and his administration. VOTE will continue to do all we can to help the Governor, legislators, and the Department of Corrections better understand how we can support people trying to get on stable ground. We will continue to lift the voices of formerly and currently incarcerated people who are working hard to improve their lives.
Women and girls are the glue that hold our families together, but they are also demonized, oppressed and stripped of their dignity for their suffering. When they are taken out of the home it affects the entire community – and Black women are incarcerated at double the rate.
On Friday, Dec. 15, we stood together with Women with a Vision, BreakOUT!, Operation Restoration, The National Council, and The Center for Community Change to bring our sisters home in a march and rally to wake up and shake up Louisiana!
#FreeHer #ICannotBeFreeUntilYouAre #BlackWomensLivesMatter
watch the livestream RECORDING
This is not just a one-day, one-time event. It is the beginning of a movement to take hold of and change the current narrative of mass incarceration to make it inclusive of all those who are impacted. The event kicks off VOTE’s 2018 advocacy campaign which will have both local and state reach. It is time to lift up women and girls, share their stories with the public and change the laws and policies that create additional harm through civic engagement.
Help us bring women and girls home for the holidays this year by paying their bonds, and launch our campaign for dignity by donating today.
This is the beginning of a movement to take hold of and change the current narrative of mass incarceration to be inclusive of all those who are impacted. It is time to lift up women and girls to the public and change the laws and policies that create additional harm through civic engagement.
Help us bring women and girls home for the holidays this year by paying their bonds, and launch our campaign for dignity by donating today.
VOTE is a grassroots, membership-based organization founded and run by formerly incarcerated persons (FIPs) in partnership with allies. We are dedicated to ending the disenfranchisement and discrimination against people with convictions.
We believe that FIPs, their loved ones, and their communities can use their experiences and expertise to improve public safety in New Orleans. Through civic education and participation, VOTE increasingly mobilizes a strong group of leaders to transform our city’s criminal justice system.
Join VOTE, and people throughout Louisiana, to march and rally on December 15,2017, to wake up and shake up Louisiana on how mass incarceration affects women & girls. Women & girls are the glue holding families together, but are demonized, oppressed and stripped of their dignity as punishments for their own trauma. Taking them out of the home impacts the entire community. We stand together to bring our sisters home. Learn more about our event here!
DONATE: Help us bring women and girls home for the holidays:
CREATE: Join us December 1st, from 5:00-8:00 p.m., and help make gift bags, create banners and signs for Formerly & Currently Incarcerated Women and Girls Day. This is open to the entire community. We will be in the gym @ 2022 St. Bernard Ave.
SUPPORT: We are seeking donations of re-entry supplies for women (e.g., toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, lotion, feminine products). Donations can be dropped off at VOTE's office any time next week. Thank you!
Entering the Tricentennial: Year One of dismantling Mass Incarceration (and other thoughts on the 2017 New Orleans elections)
As New Orleans enters its Tricentennial Year, the people of the city accomplished two historic firsts. One has already become national news, while the other helps explain how the first happened and what it means. LaToya Cantrell became the first woman elected mayor in New Orleans, a city first named when French traders met the Chitimacha tribe in 1718, on the crescent bend of the Mississippi River. This historic first happened in a run-off election, where, also for the first time ever, voter turnout increased between the October jungle primary and November run-off, by 3000 voters.
Voter turnout usually drops by 50% after the Primary, when many people go home and stay home. Whether they are disinterested because (a) they backed one of the other 16 mayoral candidates who did not make the final cut, or (b) whether their City Council seat had been already decided (as in Districts A, C, and D), along with the two At-Large Council seats, or (c) being uninspired by apathy, oppression, and negative campaign attacks, or (d) believing that in a city like New Orleans, the people in charge will stay in charge no matter who is elected… there are plenty of reasonable reasons to not vote.
To be clear, civic participation in New Orleans is still teetering on a crisis in democracy, with only 32% of registered voters showing up for the Run-Off. In a city of 310,000 voting age residents, only 27% of the adults participated. The number of voters (85,000) in New Orleans is similar to the number of currently disenfranchised people in Louisiana (72,000, with 10% of them being in New Orleans). For comparison, 64% of registered voters (165,000 people) showed up to vote on the 2016 headline of Trump v. Clinton, when most Louisiana Democrats likely knew their state would go Red anyways... and 25,000 New Orleanians got the President they wanted.
Adapting to New Candidates, New Entities, and New Messages
During the Primary season, many organizations hosted forums, as leading groups on affordable housing, environment, and education (to name a few) concentrated on weeding down the 18 mayoral candidates. Platforms were posted, endorsements went out, millionaires launched their own pricey campaigns against their rivals, and many people relied upon trusted experts to sort through the chatter. If people were not talking about crime, water pumps, education, or housing- they were probably wasting their breath.
Voters Organized to Educate (an organization that focuses on “criminal justice” as the main political issue), launched a campaign (“Know Your Vote”) with billboards, bus shelters, and a website (www.KnowYourVoteNola.org) simplifying election information and indicating which candidates signed on to a Ten-Point Platform, based on public safety. In a city where over two-thirds of the budget goes to arresting and incarcerating people- clearly this budget, and its long-term effectiveness, should be a main issue.
Some traditional pavement-pounders focused on tight elections that would likely be decided during the Primary. District C, which includes the economic engine French Quarter, had only two candidates. Nadine Ramsey, the incumbent, had voted to increase the size of the jail and was typically evasive on every point-blank inquiry on her criminal justice positions. Kristen Giselson Palmer was a former councilwoman for C, challenging Ramsey. Although some members of the progressive community questioned her record and intentions on affordable housing, she was clear on the jail. She voted for the 1,438 bed-cap while previously in office, and would be a consistent ally on developing alternatives to incarceration, preventative programs, and confronting the root causes of crime. It was a clear distinction, and Voters Organized to Educate endorsed Palmer, and spread this endorsement throughout their network. Palmer beat Ramsey by a mere 110 votes.
Criminal Justice and Election Advocacy
Who is this network of people focused on criminal justice issues, where did it come from, and how big is it? The core of people demanding criminal justice reform were formed by the system itself. The final line of the book Das Kapital, reads: “Capitalism builds its own gravediggers.” The analysis is that, for Capitalism to work, there are a few profiteers standing on the hard labor of many. At some point, the oppressed workers are so numerous it is an unsustainable power imbalance and they can not hire enough police, court officials, and prison guards to keep the social disruptions in line. In America, the decline of manufacturing, rise of automation, and increase in outsourcing all coincided with another major phenomenon: the birth of mass incarceration on a level that resembles slavery. But can it infinitely grow when the convicted people reach a million… ten million… a hundred million?
Control can be maintained by force, but that is tenable. Control requires compliance, whether altruistic or via manipulation. When 80,000 people leave an arena: nothing will make it go so orderly as a home team victory, such as the New Orleans Saints miraculous comeback against the Washington football team this week. Police officers on hand need only high-five the smiling, chanting masses. Keeping intergenerational discontent is much more difficult, when people are born into an economic and educational quagmire. Police are seen as protecting the haves from the have-nots, and large-scale activities must deal with each generation reaching an age of maturity. Might they have? Or have-not?
New Orleans grew steadily over a century, reaching its peak population in 1960 of 628,000 people, when over 8000 longshoreman worked the riverfront; more than the entire state prison population. Four decades later, the International Longshoreman Association Local 3000 has 353 members, while five times that number of New Orleanians are incarcerated, and as many people are under community supervision in the Crescent City as the entire state prison population as during the most population-packed days of the 1960s. “Law and Order” has become like a religion to some, with dogma beyond question, and a calling card for politicians seeking election. Donald Trump rode it into the White House, yet nationwide that religion is finally under formidable attack.
The ‘Three-Legged Consent’ to Mass Incarceration
The Declaration of Independence includes an altruism that “Governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed.” Consent to mass incarceration, a system of locking away our social problems, has only been possible due to (1) structural racism, (2) the moral taboo of drugs, and (3) a belief that there is no better alternative. It functions as a three-legged stool; yet everyone knows what happens when one leg is taken away from a three-legged stool. Someone can teeter on it for a while, or cheat and put down their own leg to prop it up. Take away two legs, and extra supports are mandatory. Take away all three and the whole thing collapses under its own weight.
An industrialist of the Gilded Age, Stephen Gould, once said publicly, “I can pay half the working class to kill the other half.” His words never became more relevant than when so many families’ livelihoods became dependent on arresting, convicting, incarcerating, and overseeing people. The overseers are predominantly white while the overseen are disproportionately Black. In Louisiana, two-thirds of people in prison come from the one-third of residents who are Black. In many other states, where the white populations hover around 80-90%, white people will make up the majority of the state prison; however, Black and Latino people will always be represented at a massively disproportionate rate. National media stories will lead people to believe even their white prisons are full of Black people. THis is structural racism, guiding our practices and perceptions.
The root causes of incarceration stem from the impacts of poverty, where children face the intergenerational challenges of living in substandard housing, attending under-resourced schools, have an incarcerated family, face unresolved trauma, and strive for some way out of the stresspool. Some may chase a ‘feel good’ way out of intoxication, the only affordable vacation from pain. Others seek an economic way out, with one of the few businesses that can be started with under $100: selling intoxication. This structural poverty (we were all born into, as the status quo) brings on the impacts of the drug taboo and the policies of structural racism. Police are not deployed to the college dorms, to fight drug use with all available resources. They are instead sent to the low-income areas, where people are desperate to rise from the situation they were born into. If white college students were stop and frisked, arrested, and convicted at rates similar to their low-income Black and Latino counterparts… the Drug War would evaporate overnight.
Today, New Orleans has over 15,000 of its native children living in penitentiaries upstate, in white communities where the primary industry is overseeing Black people. Another 1,500 residents are locked up in our local jail, at a rate that is double the next-highest city despite our crime rate being similar to other cities. This is a manufactured crisis that should be looked at no differently than if firefighters were setting houses ablaze, and calling for additional resources. The New Orleans jail population is an outgrowth of leg number three: believing there is no better alternative (when, in fact, there is).
On November 1st, much fanfare was made over Louisiana’s historic release of 1900 more people from prison than previously scheduled. It was in fact historic, as Louisiana had never passed a single measure to reduce incarceration before; however, some Chicken Little types acted like nobody had ever before been released from prison. In fact, roughly 1500 people are released every month, with about 300 of them coming to New Orleans. Despite relatively short probation and parole sentences, New Orleans Probation and Parole officers oversee 7000 people. These residents are denied voting rights, but only until the oversight ceases.
Since the advent of mass incarceration in the 1970s, and with New Orleans serving as Louisiana’s beacon of “a chance,” approximately 100,000 people in New Orleans have some form of criminal record. Each of them have families and close friends who are fully aware of how the government has dealt with people struggling, how little the government has supported people striving to do the right thing after a conviction, and how much the government has contributed to creating the culture of endless punishment upon its own people.
The Elections of 2017
In New Orleans, a city with so many strong community leaders, “race” is not as straightforward a topic as one might assume. Starting with the Free Black community during the age of slavery, New Orleans is better defined by elites, cabals, families, and networks. If electing a Black mayor solved all our ills, New Orleans would have long since become a bastion of equality and prosperity. The legs of the stool still strongly exist.
Voters Organized to Educate strived to make the elections for Mayor, seven City Council seats, and Sheriff into a referendum on the criminal justice system. One slogan, “Without Justice, it’s Just the Criminal System,” appeared on bus shelters in various parts of the city. The organization found no better race than the Mayoral election, where Desiree Charbonnet touted her backing of the District Attorney (who has incarcerated more people, per capita, than anyone in America through leveraged plea deals), the Sheriff (who continues to seek an ever-expanding jail), and promised to “fight” crime and hire 500 more police officers. Meanwhile her adversary, LaToya Cantrell, promised to staff an Office of Reentry with a formerly incarcerated person, to deal with the discrimination following convictions, and to work with community-based groups for prevention and alternatives.
With a City Council led by Jason Williams and criminal justice reformer Helena Moreno, Kristen Giselson Palmer’s prior experience in the Council, and Cyndi Nguyen’s understanding of the expertise within community organizations, and Jay Banks’ knowledge that the prison is a business decimating Black communities: The people of New Orleans have a group that should be pushing back on the budget requests of the criminal justice system. This will provide funds to be directed elsewhere, to development and improvement of lives, of reclamation and rehabilitation to restore communities.
Entering our Tricentennial Year, we can pull out the three legs that have been three hundred years in the making.
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.