At a time when 100 million Americans are trying to move on from their criminal records, hundreds (and possibly thousands) of people will gather in Oakland, California to address their common struggle with an oppressive criminal justice system. The Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement (FICPFM) is made up of the directly impacted families and communities confronting a system of control; a system that has, itself, grown out of control. This two day conference (Sept. 9-10) is the latest of many historical markers in the Civil Rights movement, and represents the courageous individual and collective journeys among every organizer and participant.
The FICPFM is a natural result of mass incarceration, as thousands of people annually enter a criminal justice system that is used as our national program to address substance use, addiction, mental illness, unemployment, conflict resolution, and homelessness. Mass incarceration is a program overwhelming reserved for people from low-income communities, overwhelmingly imposed upon Communities of Color. It is interwoven with our school systems, and provides cradle-to-grave interaction that people of wealth and/or connections can opt out of. After decades of skimming people from our communities, of people returning to those same communities, our efforts to reclaim our lives and seek healthier options for our children, have led to our own national gatherings.
People can register for the conference by clicking this link here. The FICPFM organizers have been raising funds for travel support, for directly impacted people all over the nation to get help attending, and the registration allows for people to request funding (Click Here). With commitments from roughly two dozen states so far, priority will be given for organizational representatives, and the goal of having someone from all 50 states in Oakland.
The first FICPFM gathering came five years ago, in Selma, Alabama. We walked backwards over the Edmund Pettis Bridge to mark a restoration of the historic Civil Rights Movement, a movement that lost its way under the rhetoric of drugs and crime that invested heavily into a gulag of cages to theoretically make community problems go away. Yet the War on America known as the “War on Drugs” most effective result was to destabilize and weaken the same communities that were previously organizing for political power, justice, and equality.
In Watts, California, the FICPFM ratified a 14-Point Platform. Since that time, we have continued to progress through individuals, organizations, and collaborations. In 2016, we see an American culture that has had enough of mass incarceration. These voices come from both political parties and from no party. This frustration is present in rural White America as well as concentrated urban communities of Color. Ultimately, a small group of insulated people have been providing “solutions” for us that they would never provide for their own families. And although 6 million of us can not vote, many millions more can. Our families, friends and allies combine with us for the largest single-issue population in America. An issue that these politicians will strain, yet again, to ignore this election season.
The conference will include workshops and strategy sessions with highly acclaimed advocates from all parts of America. Several special guests are scheduled to attend, so check back on the conference page for updated information as the schedule is modified.
People seeking more information are encouraged to contact the FICPFM here.
NOTE: The new law DOES NOT apply to anyone who was already serving time. It WILL NOT change the parole eligibility of anyone who was convicted before the new law. Anyone wanting to help VOTE push to create changes for people already incarcerated should Contact Us.
Today, Governor John Bel Edwards took another significant step in the right direction on criminal justice reform, signing HB 802 into law and giving people an opportunity for earlier parole release. Coming on the heels of last week’s new law to Ban the Box on thousands of state jobs, and signing the Raise the Age bill (prosecuting 17 year olds in the juvenile system rather than as adults) two other bills VOTE strongly supported, we are encouraged by both the legislature and governor in recognizing the need for comprehensive reforms.
Unfortunately, however, HB 802 will not apply retroactively.
Eligibility: From 85% to 75% for People Convicted of Violent Crimes
The new law is not without complications, however, as it only applies to people who are being sentenced to violent crimes after its enactment. This means roughly 12,000 people convicted of violent crimes (who are not serving Life) will need to wait until 85% of their time is complete before their first parole eligibility. Any cost savings will take years, if not decades, to be realized. The average sentence in Louisiana is 22 years, but for people convicted of violent crimes the average is much higher.
The irony of the new law can be found in the case of Trevor Holmes, who went to court because his eligibility (on a 40 year sentence) was increased to 85% in 1997. The court ruled that increasing parole eligibility is not an increase in punishment, so there was no issues of ex post facto punishment. Prior to the enhancement, people were eligible on their 1st offense in 33% of the full term, 2nd offense was 50%, and 3rd offense was no parole. This does not ensure release by any means, it merely meant the parole board would review their progress and (at times) give guidance on what positive steps they might take to gain release. For the state to begin realizing that increasing eligibility to 85% was perhaps a bit too far, it is reasonable to apply this law and reduce Mr. Holmes’ eligibility down to 75%.
The new law reduces eligibility to 75%, and if it applied retroactively, the state could potentially save millions of dollars on those people who are not gaining early release through good time parole. As it stands, people are released on Good Time Parole Supervision in roughly two-thirds of their time.
Realistically, most people engaged in positive behavior while incarcerated will be released before ever seeing the parole board.
Among the 12,000 people the law will not apply to, 3,800 of them are over the age 50. These people are serving an average of sentence of 22 years (with 12 years in thus far), and are likely to be released after serving 15 years… over two years prior to their parole eligibility.
Not only should the 85% be reduced retroactively to 75%, it should come down to 50% for the state to have genuine opportunities to save money, instill hope, and increase reentry success. This requires the state to first, recognize that our punishments are excessive and costly, compared to other states in America; secondly, the state needs to show faith in the DOC, a conservative entity that is not granting early releases to people who don’t show positive signs on the inside.
Parole Board Voting: From Unanimous to Majority Vote
These 12,000 people currently convicted of violent crimes will need a unanimous vote of the parole board, rather than newly convicted people only needing a simple majority. In Louisiana, where few people are actually released through parole (and most people on parole are due to earning “good time” days that convert incarceration into parole supervision) there is still a 41% success rate at the parole board. With a majority vote, that number could double. The state could save millions of dollars from releasing thousands of people just a couple years earlier.
Changing to the majority vote will mostly impact people serving Life sentences for non-violent crimes; people who do not earn Good Time, and will only get out through the parole board. Those people will have over twenty years in prison and be over 45 years old to be eligible under the “20/45 Law” that began with the inside advocacy by the Angola Special Civics Project (the origin of VOTE). This new provision, the majority vote, may not reap many benefits until 2036- when someone newly convicted has twenty years inside and goes to the parole board. Unless more changes are made.
Eligibiilty for Reentry Programming
The new law also allows people convicted of violent crimes, from now onward, to participate in the DOC’s reentry preparation program. But what about someone who might get out next year after thirty years in prison? It makes very little sense that, if the program is creating positive results, people would be denied the chance to participate- and society would be effectively denying them a better chance at a successful transition into the community.
The 2016 legislature argued over several bills that would have created a parole-eligible Life sentence for children convicted prior to 2014, known as “Miller Kids,” after the U.S. Supreme Court held that children cannot receive mandatory Life Without Parole Sentences. Each of the proposals included a provision that a person needed to complete the reentry program to be parole eligible. This is a program they are currently barred from, due to the crime of violence, and HB 802 could have changed that.
In 2017, the Louisiana legislature will be in a fiscal session, so new criminal justice reforms will need to wait until 2018. Whether it is the retroactivity of parole reforms or the possibility of parole for children convicted of 1st and 2nd degree murder, we will likely be hearing from the courts and the Governor’s office before 2018. These issues don’t take a year off, just because the legislature is structured that way.
It isn’t easy to keep a positive frame of mind in prison day after day, year after year, in a place full of negativity and despair at every turn. Those who learn non-violent conflict resolution skills, who learn to avoid the signs of trouble, who learn to get along with both their community (from their comrades to their captors) are doing so in the most challenging scenario imaginable. These are essential character traits for people who must eventually face massive discrimination and rejection when seeking housing, education, jobs, and voting. These are traits that need to be honed, encouraged, and (at times) rewarded. The new parole reform is a step in much needed direction.
In addition to our new summer interns, we are excited to announce two new additions to the VOTE staff – Dolfinette Martin, Lead Organizer and Sara Fitzgerald, Director of Development and Communications.
Dolfinette Martin earned an Associates of Applied Science degree from Delgado Community College, and serves on the Advisory Board for the Prison to Patient Coalition, guiding the FIT Clinic - VOTE’s partnership with Tulane Medical School. She spent a total of nine years at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, and has been a member of VOTE since March, 2016. Dolfinette is a proud mother and grandmother, serving New Orleans as a motivational speaker, community activist, leader, organizer, and role model for at-risk youths.
In her role as Lead Organizer, Dolfinette will focus on engaging people in our community who are currently on probation and parole, “off paper” (i.e. no longer under supervision), or being targeted for convictions. These plans will include families and neighbors in highly-policed communities as well. She organizes and leads our monthly meetings, neighborhood canvasses, building membership and voices of our grassroots movement.
Sara Fitzgerald has worked in the nonprofit sector for nearly 10 years. She holds a Bachelors of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing from the University of Southern California, and a Certificate in Fundraising and Institutional Development from UCLA Extension. She recently relocated to New Orleans from Los Angeles with her husband Benjamin, a video game programmer, and their two dogs.
As Director of Development and Communications, Sara is responsible for fundraising strategy and donor relations, as well as internal and external communications. She will focus on individual donors, foundations, grant administration, and will work closely with the Board of Directors. She will assist the Deputy Director in managing the website, blog, newsletter, and social media channels as well as outreach collateral and graphic design.
This marks yet another major step for the growth and effectiveness of VOTE. New Orleans and the nation can expect to see more victories like Ban the Box and public housing policy reform (among the list of 2015-2016 accomplishments), as we will certainly roll into 2017 with strength and momentum for change.
Join us in welcoming these two new faces to the team!
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) has served as a monstrous obstacle for people attempting to oversee the cruel and unusual punishments inside American prisons. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered what may be a major windfall for the human rights of incarcerated people, by holding that a petitioner need only exhaust the administrative remedies that are actually available. Read the full opinion of Ross v. Blake, here.
The PLRA was passed in 1995 and primarily did two things: (1) The consent decrees, between prison administrators and incarcerated people, fought for through protest and legal struggle, became unenforceable in federal courts. (2) Anyone alleging abuse or discrimination had to first go through what is generally a long, arduous, multi-step administrative grievance procedure prior to filing in court. This "exhaustion" requirement has kept many cases from seeing the light of day, as victims are often intimidated and retaliated against, and/or cannot navigate the process due to language and literacy barriers. Because many prisons have administrative review procedures that resemble the twisted logic of Kafka and Escher, victims must get past their victimizer before gaining outside review. This "exhaustion" is what the Court reviewed in Ross v. Blake.
The Court dismissed the 4th Circuit ruling, that Mr. Blake's case provided a special extra-textual exception to evade exhaustion (following the 2nd Circuit's 2015 ruling), because his case was fully investigated by the prison officials. What seemed like a reasonable interpretation to the 4th Circuit highlights just how irrational this relic of the Clinton Administration is, with SCOTUS that the PLRA is a strict regime with absolutely no wiggle room. However, the Court was not without a rational review, because the prison would not allow Mr. Blake (or anyone, per policy) to exhaust the grievance procedure when an internal investigation is launched.
Blake’s contention that the prison’s grievance process was not in fact available to him warrants further consideration below. Pp. 8–14.
This ruling may prove extremely useful, particularly to the many jailhouse lawyers incarcerated throughout the nation. These legal workers, themselves incarcerated, are generally the first line of offense and last line of defense for people facing abuses in the darkest corridors of America.
Until American citizens are free to enter and oversee the prisons and jails built in their name, with their money, incarcerating their community: we are forced to rely upon the ability of people to plead their case to someone, anyone, with the power to intervene. This is usually a court, and the PLRA has erected a massive hurdle that now faces a chink in its armor. Read more about the troubles and trends of this 20 year old law that allowed prisons to becomes more inhumane, and spur the latest generation of inside protest.
The PLRA enactment was followed soon after with the destruction of habeas corpus review by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). Coming on the heels of the demolition of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and arrest of Timothy McVeigh, this legislation was quickly passed- and with little connection to either terrorism and the death penalty. This was the age of bipartisanship, where the Gingrich Republicans and Clinton Democrats found equal footing.
AEDPA created major hurdles to federal review of state convictions, and likely stands in the way of thousands of wrongful convictions throughout America. Convictions where AEDPA prevents the review of the available evidence, and denying review of misconduct or mistakes by prosecutors, police, defense attorneys, and judges.