For the past year and a half, we’ve been sending surveys to incarcerated people at various facilities in the state and collecting the results. The following list synthesizes the wants, needs, hard truths and hopeful questions present in the responses we received. While it is by no means comprehensive, this list sheds light on how to move from where we stand to where we need to be in order to best serve those to whom we are most accountable. Have an idea, recommendation or question? Share it in the comments!
1) The costs in prison are burdensome, from visits, to canteen costs, to the prohibitive price of phone calls to loved ones. Families are using money they don't have to stay connected and provide support.
GAPS IN ‘REENTRY’
2) If someone is serving a long sentence, they are usually not eligible for the few rehabilitative programs currently available, which means they can't really prepare for parole or clemency.
3) Generally, only people who are going to be released soon are eligible for reentry.
4) The Certified Treatment and Reentry Programs (CTRP) are not really "treatment" programs. No one ever asks questions about our well-being, our families, or how we have changed. [Find out what we consider to be the true Principles of Reentry.]
5) There were questions about the enforcement of Act 150, which requires the sheriff to provide a comprehensive report of the Offender Reentry Support Pilot Program within 24 months of implementation.
6) From people convicted of a sex offense:
a) Reentry is extremely challenging, finding housing and jobs is nearly impossible.
b) They can't go to shelters. There are some shelters that allow it, but if the shelter isn't approved by LA Dept. of Public Safety and Corrections (LADPSC), they can't go.
c) Fees to pay for sex offender registration once released is a burden to reentry.
d) If those convicted of a sex offense could be in the work release program, not only would they pay the exorbitant fees required to participate, but LADPSC would also be able to better monitor them (i.e. LADPSC would benefit).
7) Many asked if there are any efforts to remove certain crimes off the "crimes of violence" list.
8) Many letter writers asked VOTE and other allied organizations to send them more information about the current criminal justice reform happening.
9) People asked about statewide or national correspondence support programs, such as one that sets people up to be pen pals with inmates.
10) Many incarcerated people spoke about the lack of mental health programs in prisons because there are not enough medical staff. This leaves them feeling like they have no one to speak with about mental health.
Though this list paints the grim reality of the current state of mass incarceration, it also gives us the blueprint for our work. VOTE is one of a few organizations worldwide that was founded by and continues to take marching orders from those directly impacted by this dehumanizing system. As we gear up for a busy legislative session set to address many of the issues addressed here, we need all hands on deck. Will you join us for Lobby Day on March 27?
Our statewide organizer Dolfinette Martin hypes up the crowd at the oral arguments on Feb. 27.
On Tuesday, February 27, our members filled the courtroom at LSU Law School to hear the oral arguments in VOTE v. Louisiana, a case that, if successful, would restore voting rights to roughly 40,000 people on probation and 30,000 people on parole. These people, who are under community supervision, do not fall within the group of people who the state may constitutionally suspend voting rights. Iconic civil rights lawyer and professor Bill Quigley, lead attorney for Voice of the Experienced, argued his 15 minutes before a three-judge panel.
Shortly after Prof. Quigley began his argument to focus on the three steps of constitutional analysis, Judge Holdridge began his line of intense inquiry. Whereas the constitution allows the state to suspend the rights of people “under order of imprisonment,” Holdridge remained focused on the initial court orders that put 30,000 impacted people into prison. The Orders of Commitment are indeed orders, and do send someone to prison, which is also a prerequisite for parole.
Judge Holdridge’s focus on someone’s prior incarceration overlooks the fact that additional orders impact the life of a convicted person. A parole board will order the release of someone from prison. Their decisions carry the force of law under the Executive Branch.
1. the arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method.
2. an authoritative command, direction, or instruction.
"he was not going to take orders from a mere administrator"
The constitution does not call specifically for a “judicial” order, there are other orders issued in civil and criminal society.
Someone under parole supervision is under Order of Release by the parole board, not the judicial Order of Imprisonment.
Judge Holdridge, who spoke about as much as attorney Quigley, inquired whether there should be separate classes for people on probation and for those on parole. His inquiries with the State’s attorney exposed the fact that many people are on probation without any threat of prison time, or with a deferment of prison time. This, in turn, elicited a statement by the State that they have no idea how many people are allowed to vote or are currently voting with these types of probation sentences.
Multiple times, the Secretary of State has agreed that people on probation with no suspended sentence should be voting.
We have yet to see them clarify this on their website, on their registration materials, with their parish boards of electors, nor with any public service announcements. We will continue pushing them to do so.
The State’s attorney, Lani Durio, did not seem very familiar with criminal law, referring to probation and parole as “conditional releases.” Probation is not a release and does not follow incarceration. There is no re-entry involved with probation. The drafters of the 1974 law chose to use a phrase that does not appear anywhere else in the law: “under order of imprisonment”. Thus, for the State to say its “generally understood meaning” is to include probation and parole is not very accurate. The phrase is not generally understood at all, evidenced by the fact that a polling of the current parish boards of electors were not clear on the law; the constitutional scholar of the time asserts that only people in prison (and escapees) are “under order of imprisonment” (a scholarly article that Judge Holdridge strangely referred to as hearsay); and voting guides distributed in 1974 referred to voting rights being gained for people upon release from prison.
“Don’t you think it would be a good policy of the State to encourage people to do good and to vote?” – Judge Holdridge.
This question, asked of the Secretary of State’s lawyer, perfectly embodied the third required inquiry of whether a challenged statute is constitutional. Professor Quigley had noted that the State has not met their burden and (as well written in the brief) the State has not indicated the compelling state interest of denying people who pay taxes the right to vote. Unless the State defines their legitimate interest, we can’t assess whether or not it is narrowly tailored.
The American Probation and Parole Association wrote its response to Holdridge’s question in its brief. Yes, the State should be encouraging voting and civic engagement, the Association says, and it does have an interest in supporting positive behaviors. This is how we increase rehabilitation and public safety. Denying voting rights impacts people’s ability to become upstanding citizens.
Is voting a right or a privilege?
Few statements by Judge Holdridge caused more furrowed eyebrows than: “I don’t think all 70,000 deserve the right to vote.” Professor Quigley pointed out in clear terms that voting is undeniably a right, and is clearly and unequivocally guaranteed to all resident citizens of Louisiana over 18. We live in a nation where half the people do not vote, a mere 25% of our population can decide the President, and many people condemn uninformed voters to the point of suggesting they shouldn’t have the right to vote.
The concept that voting rights could be suspended for some, while not others, is exactly the tortured history of voter suppression that the 1974 constitution was supposed to finally eliminate.
Another common red herring that gets thrown in voting rights debates is “what about the right to bear arms” and other rights? In this case, Professor Quigley had the perfect response, because Section 20 of the constitution refers to all rights being restored upon completion of prison and supervision. Section 10 refers specifically to voting rights. Every lawyer knows that the specific provision trumps the general provision. Thus, in our case, the framers of the constitution accounted for every general right in Section 20, while drafting one specific section that covers one specific right: voting. We are not challenging the general rights of Section 20.
Constitutional interpretation requires judges to reconcile any perceived conflicts within the full document. Each section must be given an independent purpose and meaning, if possible. If the voting rights provision has no unique purpose, and if “under order of imprisonment” is no different than the broad and understandable (prison, probation, parole) language of Section 20, the court would not be giving Section 10 any independent meaning at all.
The court has until April 4th to rule. That day is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King being assassinated. Few decrees could be more fitting that day than a victory for universal voting rights. Some possibilities include:
· The court could flat out rule against us, at which point we would appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court (who must have the final word, regardless of the path the case takes).
· The court could overrule the district court, and make this determination of law without any further evidence gathering required. At that point, the State would appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
· The court could send the case back to the district court with instructions (“remand”), such as holding an evidentiary hearing to gather more information on what is actually happening in the process (people’s specific orders, the types of sentences, what is happening with registrations, the public understanding of 1974, what the state’s compelling interest is, etc.). The court could also instruct the district court on what processes and standards to follow when deciding the constitutionality of a statute.
Our incredible legal team, which started with a call-out to our local civil rights family, has been bolstered by the expertise and dedication of Advancement Project. We went into this appeal with well-crafted arguments of law, policy, and morality. Whatever the court rules, we will be ready to continue the struggle to secure this fundamental right of citizenship.
Yesterday, VOTE members headed to LSU's School of Law bright and early to have our voices heard at the oral arguments for our lawsuit, VOTE v. Louisiana. Members from all corners of the state--from New Orleans to Lafayette to Shreveport--came out to share their stories. At the press conference before the hearing, several speakers took the mic to share different perspectives on why voting rights matter. Among them were VOTE member and lawsuit plaintiff Randy Tucker, who spoke about the role of God and religion in this fight; Loyola University College of Law Professor Andrea Armstrong, who helped author the constitutional scholars' brief; Felicia Smith, a Shreveport VOTE member and new part-time staff member, who shared her story of incarceration; and Professor Davida Finger, who read from the APPA brief endorsing VOTE's position in this case.
Following the press conference, our partners at Advancement Project led a teach-in about the history behind the lawsuit and what to expect from the case moving forward. Members were also briefed on how oral arguments typically work and how they can engage.
When our case was heard, Professor Bill Quigley answered questions from the judges about what it means to be on probation or parole and more. While tensions were high in the court room, VOTE is confident that this was a positive step for our case, and that, ultimately, we will win.
Watch the Facebook live recording of the press conference here!
Watch Executive Director Norris Henderson's closing remarks following the hearing here.
Yesterday's action was one of many coming up, and we need you to come out and help us win the movement to end mass incarceration! Sign up to join us at our events in March!
VOTE members came out in droves at the Felony Classification Task Force meetings. The result? They officially recommended that the Legislature create a felony class system that will categorize existing crimes and provide sentencing guidelines for judges to follow! We have many more events like this coming up. Join us!
It’s the most joyous time of the year at the VOTE office, not only because of Mardi Gras but because we’re gaining serious momentum in local and state criminal justice reform.
Last week, the Louisiana Felony Classification Task Force officially recommended that the Legislature create a felony class system to categorize existing crimes and provide corresponding sentencing guidelines for judges to follow. Members of the Task Force made their decision in response to a plethora of powerful testimonies from formerly incarcerated people, their loved ones and allies. The full report includes four specific recommendations, which include:
While we still have work to do in order to get the recommended legislation authored and passed, this victory is a major step in the right direction for our members and those most impacted by the system. If you want to be part of next steps, sign up to join us at future actions.
Our lawsuit--VOTE v. Louisiana--is also swiftly moving forward. On February 27, the judges will hear oral arguments from both sides, and we are aiming for a big turnout of supporters on that day. The hearing will be held at the LSU Law School. Join us.
“The court needs to feel the gravity of this case, and the importance of voting rights as the cornerstone of a free democracy,” says Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director. “The best way to do that is showing the collective will of the people.”
If we win this case, over 70,000 Louisianans under community supervision will be able to vote again. We will send a strong message throughout the state and nation that outdated laws based on institutional racism are unacceptable.
“The remnants of slavery need to go,” says Reilly. “This law impacts all people, Black and white, by watering down our democracy and telling those of us that are formerly incarcerated that we are unwelcome and unwanted. Our case is as part of a long legacy of historic civil rights struggles. The time to end 150-year-old second-class citizenship is now.”
We need the judges to see that this is a movement fueled by people power. Our goal is to have more than 100 people show up on the 27th. RSVP now.
Can’t make it that day? As the 2018 Legislative session approaches, we will have many opportunities to attend events that will push to restore the rights of formerly incarcerated people. On March 2, we will head to Southern University for a statewide summit on upcoming legislative activities, and on March 27 we will replicate last year’s lively Lobby Day at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge. Sign up to be at some or all of these events.
Yesterday, the people of Florida overcame a huge hurdle to restoring citizenship to 1.8 million people who have had their voting rights taken away due to a criminal conviction. For decades, elections have focused in on Florida's voters; and for decades, commentators and politicians have spoken about America's democracy without even mentioning the lifetime denial of democracy's cornerstone: voting rights. One might have thought this was an easy ask, to give universal voting rights, considering that Florida's own study proved that people who voted had lower rates of recidivism.
This effort was led by directly impacted people, struggling for freedom, citizenship, and a place to stand. People who struggled to find resources to build an infrastructure to move forward for themselves. Last year, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition brought VOTE's Norris Henderson and Bruce Reilly to their retreat. We saw first hand who was involved and what they brought to the table. Their assembly of leaders from throughout the state made a commitment to gather 766,200 signatures to get this issue on the ballot. It was clear to us that these people, many who had no current right to vote, had the strength of character and determination to pull of such an unlikely victory. Desmond Meade has proven his leadership, and how essential it is that leadership reflect the people whose rights are at stake.
Coming on the heels of Alabama's highly publicized impact of jail-based voter registration by The Ordinary People's Society, Florida's ballot initiative and Louisiana's litigation (VOTE v. Louisiana) are indications that the South may indeed "rise again." But after millions of people impacted by the System start to vote, the South will never look the same again.
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.