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,
Our Deputy Director, Bruce Scottus Reilly, can't vote until he turns 65. Help us overturn Louisiana's voting ban for people on probation and parole by joining our Louisiana Campaign for Democracy: http://www.vote-nola.org/campaign-for-democracy.html
Last week, VOTE Lead Organizer Dolfinette Martin and State Organizer Robert Goodman discussed voting rights with Adrienne Wheeler of the Justice and Accountability Center's radio show, All Rise, on WHIV New Orleans. The weekly show promotes equal human rights and justice for all, and "speaks truth to power."
by: bruce reilly, deputy director
It’s that time of year again. Time to mount up with 40 other riders and take a three-day trek to the Louisiana State Penitentiary and raise funds for families who have to ride buses to visit their loved ones locked inside. This is my third year being part of the Nola-to-Angola bike ride, and is likely to carry the most personal significance. Whether engaged in a conversation or focused on my thoughts, the struggles of American mass incarceration are reaching a critical era.
Last week, over 500 people gathered in Oakland, California for the first national conference of the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement. This gathering was years in the making, and lays down a clear marker in the new era of reversing mass incarceration. New Orleans was well represented, as it should be, holding the dubious title of the most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated nation in the world.
Upon arrival at the hotel, old friends embraced while new ones were quickly made. Once again, people who have spent time in a cage — whether for days or decades — could greet and speak in comfortable terms without feeling ostracized or discriminated against. All of VOTE’s staff joined with three VOTE board members and several of our members, including those who intersect with OPPRC, the Louisiana Prison Education Coalition, Women With a Vision, and the free living members of the Angola 3, Robert King and Albert Woodfox.
VOTE Executive Director Norris Henderson joined with several other impressive leaders, who have been planning this gathering for many years, to welcome everyone to the space and provide the history of this collaboration.
Tomorrow, September 2nd, join the Congress of Day Laborers in solidarity to stand up against the retaliatory incarceration of community members
Tomorrow, the Congress of Day Laborers will hold a 24-hour vigil in Lafayette Square, across from the U.S. Attorney’s office, starting with a press conference at 2:00 pm. VOTE members and other allies may join the vigil any time from Thursday, September 1st at 2:00 pm to Friday, September 2nd at 2:00 pm.
Three months ago, William Diaz-Castro, Jose Isaias Lara-Serrano, and Jonny Manzanares exposed flagrant civil rights abuses by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These abuses are now under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security. As a result, all three face felony reentry charges and permanent separation from their families. They have been incarcerated in St. Tammany Parish Jail for three months.
Over the past two decades the number of offenders sentenced in federal courts has increased dramatically with the enforcement of the immigration felony offense for unlawful reentry into the United States. An increase in such convictions accounts for nearly half of that growth from 1992 to 2012.
The federal Bureau of Prisons recently released a decision to let contracts with private prisons expire. It has spawned a somewhat new conversation around incarceration, which many of us have been living, breathing, and discussing for decades. Here are VOTE’s thoughts.
Three questions to ask regarding any prison reform
First, it is important to consider whether new reform will reduce the number of people in cages, if it will only “move the furniture around” or, worse, will end up increasing the number of people in prison. For example, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s prisons were so overcrowded that incarceration was “cruel and unusual punishment,” California relocated their prisoners instead of releasing some. The new facilities were a combination of taxpayer-owned, and rented from private corporations. This is “moving around the furniture.”