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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
In today's two-hour hearing, the Senate Judiciary C Committee heard from over a dozen people in support of a bill to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision. The bill proposes to create parole eligibility at 30 years for boys and girls convicted of murder in Louisiana. Watch the full hearing here.
And then Norris Henderson of VOTE testified in opposition:
Be sure to watch at the 13:30 mark, when Norris weighs in on the very important topic of crime survivors.
Read VOTE's written testimony here.
Amendments are expected to be proposed on the floor of the Senate.
Contact your state senator now, and call for a meaningful opportunity for release.
It is widely known that Louisiana is the most incarcerated state in the world. This means massive numbers of families and communities have members struggling with a lifetime punishment. Fortunately, we are in an era of reform and the work of a statewide Justice Reinvestment Task Force is now into the legislative session. From now until June 16th, VOTE will be monitoring and weighing in on 31 separate pieces of legislation.
We categorize them in four areas: Voting Rights & Democracy; Sentencing, Parole & Probation Reforms; Reentry & Life with a Criminal Record; Decriminalization.
Join our newsletter to get updates each week, and check back to take action.
See VOTE's Bill Tracker web page, for updates on hearing dates, locations, and results.
Voting Rights & Democracy:
HB235 would create a question on the Nov. 2018 ballot, asking to change the state constitution language allowing suspension of voting rights for “incarcerated” people. The current phrase, “under order of imprisonment,” creates all the confusion about people living under community supervision and why VOTE filed VOTE v. Louisiana. This proposal needs two-thirds of both the House and Senate to get on the ballot. We are strongly in favor of this moving forward to let the democratic process work and let the people decide.
HB168 simply requires the Dept. of Corrections to report to the Secretary of State when someone is released from supervision. This way the Secretary can automatically restore voting rights without requiring a person to obtain official paperwork from one state agency merely to submit it to another state agency. This bill is in the House Government Affairs.
HB228 would stop “prison based gerrymandering,” i.e. counting people as residents of the prison they are held inside. This would stem political power from flowing to legislative districts with prisons in them. Most importantly, it would stop the perverse relationship of politicians advocating directly against the interests of people in prison, who have no power to decide their representative.
HB229 would reduce the time people have their voting rights suspended. This proposal will suspend them for five years since the time released from incarceration. People successfully integrated into the community, who are still on (most likely) parole or probation, will be able to vote. This compromise is not the universal voting rights sought by VOTE, and others, but it is a significant step.
VOTE OPPOSES HB256 would propose a Nov. 2018 ballot initiative for constitutional amendment that places a 15-year bar on people running for office, or being appointed to office, after the end of their felony sentence (and a 5-year bar after a misdemeanor). This is inherently anti-democracy, as it would keep people from electing the leaders of their choice.
Sentencing, Parole, and Probation Reforms:
SB220 would create a comprehensive and sensible class system for felony crimes. This is a no-brainer for anyone working in the system, no matter how they feel about incarceration. It would amend some thresholds for drug and property crimes to make them more rational.
HB316 would increase time off for good behavior (“Good Time”), and be retroactive for people convicted of lesser crimes. This is a significant step, part of an overall reform movement, but is not far enough. Retroactivity should apply to people serving the longest sentences. Just as lesser crimes generate sentences too long, so do more serious crimes.
SB139 would place a 3-year cap on probation, allow Good Time credit while on community supervision, and expand eligibility to incarceration alternatives. This should alleviate some burden on people who have proven their success. It does not support people in the early portions of their term (when times are toughest), but it will create some incentive. Perhaps most importantly, it allows the supervisor to punish someone for small violations without incarceration. Once that decision is made, people tend to lose any job, housing or possessions they might have accumulated.
HB249 would levy fines and fees upon someone based on their ability to pay. For decades, lawmakers have created one more fee on top of the last, to the point where people’s lives resemble something out of the 19th century. “Ability to Pay” cannot be based on one’s lifetime possibility of ever having a decent job. The pressure of collection, and limitations on normal life (such as drivers licenses) is weighted net placed on poor communities that must be lifted. The Warrant Clinic at VOTE last month was a jubilee, where approximately $2 million of debts were forgiven for hundreds of people. These people were never going to have the money to pay, and yet the courts were never goig to stop issuing warrants and demands.
HB101 and SB 142 would eliminate the death penalty, the most cruel and inhumane punishment. History has shown that many innocent people have been on death row, and some have been executed. The process is costly in every way.
SB221 would amend the Habitual Offender law so low level crimes can’t be used after five years. Too many people are threatened into lengthy sentences by this law, merely due to a series of petty offenses (including offenses they may not have actually done).
SB146 would reduce the cleansing period of old convictions (from 10 years down to 5) regarding the Habitual Offender sentence enhancement. This would NOT apply to crimes of violence (R.S. 14:2(B)) or sex offenses (15:541). This is yet another example of how the already longer punishment for more serious crimes turns into longer secondary punishments after that sentence ends. The other interesting piece of this bill is it allows a judge to consider a sentence “excessive” and provide that a person who receives “Life” under the Habitual Offender statute may be parole eligible after 35 years. Considering that most people facing such a Life sentence will be over 30 years old, this is creating another form of Geriatric Parole. In such a case, a person has already served time on each of the previous convictions, is receiving time on the new conviction, and to add 35 years without parole as an enhancement is not the sort of “reform” that will get Louisiana out from the title of America’s Most Incarcerated.
VOTE OPPOSES SB16 and HB45 both address the Juvenile Life Without Parole issue. Although slightly different, both bills would (1) treat children’s sentences of 1st and 2nd degree murder as the same, with only two options: Life, with or without parole; (2) Parole eligibility begins at 30 years of incarceration. This inhumane option is out of step with the nation, and unconscionable around the world. First, 1st and 2nd degree murder should have different sentence ranges (2nd Degree should allow for a term of years). Second, parole on Life should begin at 15 years for 1st degree and 10 years for 2nd. Because people’s minds are not fully developed until age 25, this would be an ideal time for the parole board to begin their inquiry and conversation with someone sentenced as a child.
VOTE OPPOSES HB50 would mandate every person on work release wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. These costs are typically passed on to the person in custody, who is also providing a large percentage of their paycheck to the jail. Whereas work release is designed not as a state revenue generator, but as a reentry program, it is counterproductive to add such fees. Furthermore, because eligibility for work release is so narrow already, the state should not be making claims of “dangerousness” about the least serious of situations.
Reentry, and Life with a Criminal Record:
HB177 would stop punishing the children of parents who have drug convictions, and end the ban on federal food stamps for people with drug convictions. Other states have learned how counterproductive this optional ban has been, by further preventing people in need from accessing the very limited supports that do exist.
HB519 would expand on VOTE’s 2014 licensing victory, and the 2016 Ban the Box victory, by allowing for full occupational licensing for people with criminal records. Particularly where such people often must be entrepreneurial in spirit, Louisiana benefits by not holding back those pursuing legal upstanding professions.
HB426 would suspend child support payments during incarceration. No child ever benefitted by having a parent massively in debt, particularly on top of the other fines and fees the courts are typically seeking from someone released from prison.
SB153 would increase the state minimum wage to $8/hour, and create a civil remedy against those employers who violate the law. Many people with convictions, including those who are leaving prison, are working at or near minimum wage. These are grown adults, many who are parents, seeking to build towards a sustainable and upstanding career. Meanwhile, they likely face thousands of dollars in fines and fees, while potentially being released with absolutely no personal belongings. Louisiana needs to provide a floor of support for those working the hardest.
HB61 would require police to issue a summons to people, rather than arrest, for misdemeanors and low-level theft (with a few exceptions). This will reduce the jail population on petty charges. Whatever needs to be sorted out can be done while keeping a job, a home, and/or a family as intact as possible.
SB35 would allow medical marijuana patients to be free from arrest. Currently, an arrestee must go to court and make an affirmative defense that they are a medical patient. This is a waste of resources if a patient can show their certification at the point of police contact.
HB81 would make a presumption of non-monetary bail. This may eliminate the number of people in jail charged with less serious crimes, and/or with little to no prior criminal history. This would allow thousands of people to go back to work, prepare their defense, hold on to their small resources, and save municipalities millions of dollars on needless pretrial detention.
HB409 would ensure that people are not charged with “hate crimes” when resisting arrest. The purpose of Hate Crime legislation is to express intolerance for people who target certain people for their ethnic, racial, religious, or gender identity. This has nothing to do with whether someone is allegedly being defiant when arrested for some other charge.
HB413 would fund the public defender positions at the same rate as the assistant district attorneys. For too long, the 6th Amendment Right to effective assistance of counsel has not been fulfilled. Whereas the prosecution receives more attorneys, along with massive investigative support from the police departments, the “presumption of innocence” is closer to a presumption of guilt. Louisiana needs to meet its responsibilities to its people, and/or consider that it may just be charging too many people with too many crimes.
VOTE OPPOSES HB135 would prohibit all “Sanctuary City” policies, and bar municipalities from deciding their own level of immigration enforcement activity. This bill would allow the federal agency (ICE) to dictate local police policy, and will punish a municipality by revoking all state funding. Around the nation, cities in particular have learned that aggressive immigration officials lead to communities avoiding the police when any crime occurs. This reduces public safety. Furthermore, aggressive arrests leads to lengthy and costly detentions that fracture families. This is an economic drain on that family often losing its primary breadwinner; a drain on the surrounding community attempting to absorb who remains; and a drain on the taxpayers funding the profits of federal detention facility owners, holding thousands of people for months and years on end.
This Thursday, our country will join together in celebrating a national day of gratitude. Whether you have the opportunity to be surrounded by loved ones and good food, or are spending the day on your own, we join you in reflecting on all that 2016 has brought.
We recognize that this has been a hard year for many across our community of formerly incarcerated people (FIP) and those directly impacted by the criminal justice system, and beyond. Perhaps you will be observing the holidays while incarcerated, or without an incarcerated loved one by your side. Whether serving time on a wrongful conviction or paying the debt that a broken system has deemed necessary for a crime you did commit, we know how challenging incarceration is for both the person inside and the people they are forced to leave behind on the outside. Perhaps the election results did not leave you feeling like you have much to be proud of as an American this holiday season. Perhaps you are disheartened by racial injustice and that so much of our country does not view it as a needed point of change. Perhaps environmental protection and the treatment of our indigenous brothers and sisters brings you sadness, or anger. Perhaps you are fearful that our nation may soon reverse decades of progress, that true equality in our nation now seems further away and harder to achieve, that human rights recently deemed basic and necessary may be rescinded. Perhaps you are suffering more personal hardships and disappointments. We stand with you.
But we also work hard to stay focused on the positive. Here are some of the achievements that we have to be thankful for this year:
While we, too, find ourselves with many battles to fight and loses to mourn in 2016, we are incredibly grateful for the good that this year brought to us, to our community, to the country, and even to the world. We hope that you, too, find joy and success to celebrate this Thursday.
Give thanks by giving back.
This year, on Tuesday, November 29, 2016, VOTE is participating in #GivingTuesday, a global day dedicated to charitable giving and volunteerism.
In working to reform Louisiana's broken criminal justice system, VOTE fights to help not just one person, but hundreds, thousands, even a hundred thousand. While much of what our community organizers do every day connects directly impacted people with the resources they need to seek opportunity and to thrive, the bulk of our organizational work focuses on big-picture changes like sentencing reform and fair housing policies. We may help a mother and son find a ride to Angola State Penitentiary to visit a loved one, or host the LSU Dental School's Toothbus for free dental screenings in our parking lot, but we're suing the Louisiana Secretary of State to get voting rights back to everyone in the state on probation and parole at the same time.
This work is not done in a silo. We are deeply rooted in our community and rely on our members to provide us with direction. We partner with a vast array of local and national organizations who focus on various aspects of criminal justice reform and related work. But more than anyone, we couldn't do this work without the support of our donors and volunteers. That's why we joined #GivingTuesday.
Last year, more than 45,000 organizations in 71 countries came together to celebrate #GivingTuesday. Since its founding in 2012, #GivingTuesday has inspired giving around the world, resulting in greater donations, volunteer hours, and activities that bring about real change in communities.
As you spend the upcoming holiday reflecting on all that we have to be thankful for, we hope you'll join us on #GivingTuesday by making a gift to support our work. But whether you use this season of gratitude and giving to support criminal justice reform through VOTE or you give to another charity whose work is important to you, whether you give your time or your money, whether you tell the world that you participated in #GivingTuesday by using the hashtag on social media or you give anonymously, we are happy to count you among the socially-conscious supporters of charitable work.
Thank you in advance,