This year, Louisiana’s runoff election is December 5.
These “second round” elections are often for positions that directly affect our communities—jobs like city council, district attorney, and school board officials. Because of their local impact, they’re just as important as national elections, and that’s exactly the reason why it’s so hard to win one of these races outright.
Elections in Louisiana can only be won by “majority,” which means that a candidate has to get at least 50% of all votes plus one, to win. In a race where there are more than two candidates, that’s nearly impossible—and that’s how we get runoffs.
Runoff elections are part of the system of disenfranchisement built against Black voters during the Jim Crow era. The idea was, if you could make people have to go vote a second time for important races like governors, mayors, judges, and so on, it would “diminish the influence of Black politicians who could more easily win in a multicandidate race with a plurality of the vote,” (source: Chicago Tribune.) In doing so, they would “preserve white political power in the majority-white state.”
In short: Runoff elections were created by white people, as a way to keep them in positions of power. While you won’t hear folks describe runoff elections that way, data and history shows that they are a wholly effective means of voter suppression.
A runoff means yet another trip to the polls, and if you don’t have the means or flexibility in your life, or within your job schedule to make those multiple trips, you simply don’t. Far too often, and especially in Louisiana, those most affected are Black and brown folks.
And that’s precisely the point.
Justice issues on the ballot actually affect communities of color the most. In New Orleans, 89% of people in jail have not been tried or convicted of a crime, and constitutionally at least, are still considered innocent. “Black men are arrested at twice the rate of white men, and Black men comprise 88% of the jail population but only make up 19% of the total New Orleans population. One of the biggest drivers of disparities in our jail population concerns the ability to pay bail: many people are detained because they are poor, not because they pose a risk to our community. More than 500 people detained (about 30% of the total population) are receiving psychiatric medication and 230 have reported a substance use disorder. Our jail is not equipped to be a mental health care provider, but these numbers indicate it is doing just that.” - Safety and Justice Challenge, 2019 report
Across Louisiana, the numbers are better, but not much. Black people make up 32% of Louisiana’s population, but make up 66% of the prison population, while white people make up 60% of the general population and are only 30% of the prison population. For a fuller picture of our state’s incarceration rate and its racial disparities, check out the Prison Policy Initiative.
On December 5, we have a chance to chip away at these numbers by casting our ballots for races that will directly affect our lives. These outcomes could be revolutionary. In Orleans Parish, we can elect leaders willing to change the course of the criminal legal system and put us on a path away from mass incarceration. We can only make that happen if our community gets out and votes.
Baton Rouge also has a great deal at stake on the runoff ballot, including the Mayor-President and six Metro Council seats. These positions wield a lot of power, and can be instrumental in moving Baton Rouge forward into a more just and equitable future.
Many other parishes also have local elections on the 5th. Whether you vote early, by mail, or in-person on election day, we hope you show up as an informed voter. Check to see your ballot, early voting location, and more in your online voter portal. See you at the polls!
February 2000, a fight breaks out in a hole-in-the-wall club in Slidell, Louisiana. It was an open mic night hosted by New Orleans rapper Mac “The Camouflage Assassin” Phipps, showcasing a crew of up-and-coming Black artists in front of a large and rowdy crowd. First came the sound of a smashing bottle, then a gunshot, and then a young man lay dying on the floor. Although a slew of eyewitnesses would come forward to police and identify another man as the one who pulled the trigger, St. Tammany’s infamous district attorney Walter Reed would convict Mac for the crime.
Today, Mac is still imprisoned at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center.
In 2019, after three decades of Walter Reed’s incumbency helped gain the parish the nickname “Saint Slammany,” a new DA was elected. One who the public doesn’t fear.
A new DA who could deliver Mac the justice he deserves. Mac was charged just a few miles away from the city he had always called home, a city with a legacy of over-incarceration that overshadows that of “St. Slammany,” a city that, come December 5, has a big vote on the ballot.
A district attorney wields enormous power, a power that—in thousands of cases over the years—can be seen leaning either toward fair and balanced judgement, or toward its opposite, in cases where the DA’s personal bias and allegiance to law enforcement over “the people” is clear. The good news? We elect our DAs.
And here in New Orleans on December 5, we have the opportunity to move our city toward meaningful criminal justice reform, toward progress that serves the people instead of the PD.
We have the chance to create a justice system that could transform New Orleans. This city’s unmistakable, original, and beautiful culture was cultivated by enslaved people who carried the heritage of their homelands with them. These, crossed with the influences of both the colonizers and the indigenous people of what became New Orleans, created a unique hybrid that one can only truly understand while in the city itself. So it makes sense that this city, a place that could not exist without the legacies of occupation, slavery, and racism, would also hold the sinister and shameful title of Most Incarcerated.
We incarcerate more people here in New Orleans than anywhere else in the country. To be clear: “Louisiana has an incarceration rate of 1,052 per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities), meaning that it locks up a higher percentage of its people than many wealthy democracies do.” (source: Prison Policy Institute)
"The United States Attorney is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done. As such, he is in a peculiar and very definite sense the servant of the law, the twofold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer. He may prosecute with earnestness and vigor– indeed, he should do so. But, while he may strike hard blows, he is not at liberty to strike foul ones. It is as much his duty to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce a wrongful conviction as it is to use every legitimate means to bring about a just one." —Justice George Sutherland, Berger v. United States, 295 U. S. 88 (1935)
The District Attorney has the power to change the course of our criminal justice system. How? By refusing to charge kids as adults, by not charging people under habitual offender laws, erasing the system of cash bail, and holding police accountable. And that is just the beginning. A DA is responsible, along with the police, for gathering evidence for trial. They also set mandatory minimums, and have a huge voice in policy and reform --as the ACLU breaks down in their blog explaining the DA’s power: Over the last several legislative sessions, community activists, academics, and criminal law reform advocates have championed evidence-based reforms to decrease incarceration and promote a more fair and equitable system of justice.
On December 5, New Orleans has the chance to elect a progressive DA to the bench. But the only way that’s going to happen is if we show up and vote.
Do you have a voting plan? Are you registered? Do you have a felony conviction and want to know if you can vote? We got you: call or email us at 504-571-9599, email@example.com
To hear more about Mac's story, check out Louder than a Riot, a podcast about prison and hip hop.
The upcoming November election has so much riding on it. One of the biggest threats to our Democracy is voter suppression. We can win this fight, but we must be prepared. Here are five ways to combat voter suppression and head to the polls ready to use the power of your vote.
Here are five ways to protect our voting power this election:
1. Vote early
Voter turnout this election season has already broken record numbers. Thanks to the hard work of advocates, both early voting and vote-by-mail were expanded so that the polls would be less crowded on election day. Avoid long lines and other potential election-day nightmares by casting your ballot by mail or in-person before Nov. 3!
If you are voting by mail, we strongly suggest that you request your ballot and send it back as soon as you can, keeping in mind that Oct. 30 is the official deadline.
In-person early voting is from Oct. 16-27, except Sundays, from 8am-7pm.
Your early voting location is different from your election-day location, so you can check your early voting polling place here.
2. Register to vote, and check your registration status OFTEN - We’ve met a lot of people this season who THINK they’re registered but are not. There are many reasons why this might include you - one reason being that the Secretary of State purged “inactive” voters from the list this summer. But there’s still time to fix it! The deadline is fast approaching: Tuesday, Oct. 13. It only takes 30 seconds to check, and then you’ll know for sure that your vote counts when you show up to the polls or mail in your ballot. To check your registration, use this link to log into your voter portal. If it lets you log in, you’re registered! If not, you can call your local Registrar of Voter’s Office to double-check, and you may need to re-register. Don’t wait! The deadline is Tuesday, Oct. 13.
If you're not registered, there's still time!
Register online here by the 13th, all you need is your Lousiana ID. If you have a felony conviction, this video will walk you through the online registration form, but remember, there is STILL an in-person step. You’ll need to bring your Voter Eligibility Letter in-person to the Registrar's Office. Call us with questions at 504.571.9599.
3. Make a voting plan
A voting plan simply means figuring out how you’re voting, when, and for who. For example, are you voting early? Great! All that’s left to do is to pick a day, find your early voting location, and fill out a sample ballot to take with you to the polls. Final sample ballots are available on the Secretary of State’s website on Wednesday, Oct. 14. It’s important to vote the way that’s best for you. Early voting, mail-in voting, and casting your ballot on election day are all available. Here are some key dates to consider:
4. Help your friends, family, and neighbors make a voting plan
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: community change happens when communities vote. We also know that it’s harder to vote when the people around you don’t - or can’t. That’s especially true for Black communities. A 2009 study found that eligible and registered black voters were nearly 12 percent less likely to cast ballots if they lived in states that disenfranchised formerly incarcerated people for life. That’s why making sure that your loved ones have a voting plan is essential in making our voices heard. Your support could be crucial for someone voting for the first time. So start that conversation. Text your brother to ask him if he’s registered and if he knows how he’s voting yet. Email your local sample ballot to your family and friends. See if your grandma needs a ride to the polls, or help requesting a mail-in ballot. In helping the people in our community create their voting plan, you could be the reason someone votes this season--we need that now more than ever.
5. Report voting violations
We all have a right to a polling place that is “free from solicitation, harassment, force or threats…” among many other things. Both workers and voters should be wearing masks, and polls should be free from any campaign materials. See something that’s not supposed to be happening at the polls? Call the Election Protection hotline, a non-partisan nonprofit organization. They have local, on-the-ground volunteers who they can send to your location, and lawyers on speed dial. They’ll do their best to record and resolve the issue:
dIn 2008, a judge sentenced Derek Harris to 15 years for selling a $30 bag of cannabis. Sound extreme? If Harris hadn’t had a record, he surely would not have gotten 15 years for this small-time drug sale. But those 15 years were not enough. The district attorney in Harris’ case took it a step further and filed to have him classified under the habitual offender statute. With one court filing, Harris’ past convictions, which he already paid the price for, were used against him yet again to sentence him to life without parole (LWOP). Harris, like so many others labeled by the (in)justice system as Habitual Offenders, was sentenced to death by prison. Harris started the arduous appeals process, desperately pleading that some judge, at some level, recognized that dying in prison was too extreme. He hoped they would agree that only a bad lawyer could have let this happen. Thankfully, even between uninspired lawyers and bureaucratic red tape, Derek’s latest lawyers (the only good ones) convinced the Louisiana Supreme Court (LASC) to overturn their previous decision. With their ruling out last week, on his sixth stage in his process, he won the opportunity for his case to be reviewed.
The ultra-punitive nature of prosecutors and judges is only one part of the courtroom equation that explains why Louisiana leads the nation in mass incarceration. Other parts include (a) defense counsel, and (b) restrictive appellate rules that can block even the most unconstitutional actions from being reviewed.
The LASC ruling declared that appellate judges CAN review errors during sentencing, including ineffective assistance of counsel. This is a major victory in creating fair appellate rules--but how many people will be able to benefit? It will take a few more cases to test the boundaries of this ruling, but our calculation is that those who tried to get their sentences reviewed (including when judges wrongfully thought the application of a Habitual Offender sentence was mandatory) but were categorically barred from raising the issues, will have a new window for appealing their case. For those people denied under Meline v. Louisiana (1996), they may have a year to build and file their case. While ultimately this is TBD, impacted people should seek legal advice.
Keep reading for a deeper dive into the legal analysis of this case.
When lawyers aren’t what they should be - Ineffective Assistance of Counsel (IAC)
One of our foundational democratic values is that people accused of crimes have the constitutional right to not just a lawyer, but an effective lawyer who covers all the bases on legal procedures. Meaning a lawyer is constitutionally obligated to explore every avenue and try their hardest to defend their client. For example, if someone has an alibi witness, the lawyer is constitutionally obligated to investigate and interview that person. But there are a lot of holes in this system. For one, though there are countless stories about how overworked and underpaid even the “best” public defenders are, meaning they always wish they could have done more. And how thorough of a job are the “good” lawyers doing? What about the “so-so” lawyers who don’t even specialize in criminal defense, yet are appointed by the court? Most of them don’t really care much about their client, or have the time to care, and will make the same flat rate regardless of the case’s outcome. Furthermore, what about the conflict of interest when public defense is partially funded from the fines following someone’s conviction?
These are just some reasons why a lawyer does not rise to the constitutional standard of “effective.” Regardless of the reason, this is one way innocent people are found guilty, or someone ends up in Angola with cruel and unusual punishment. Another hole in the system is that it can take some time for the average person to realize precisely where their case went wrong. If they realize the fault lies with their lawyer, they can raise a claim of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel (IAC)--they can officially claim their lawyer didn’t properly do their job, which, as we said, is a constitutional right. But (yet another hole) people cannot raise IAC on a direct appeal, because that is reserved for issues that were “Objected” to at trial, where there is some dispute on the trial record to review. This creates a problem, of course, because a sleeping lawyer can’t object to their own nap. So this kicks the can further down the road (meaning more time behind bars) and requires a second review AFTER the direct appeal.
Yet another hole: what if your direct appeal lawyer is also ineffective? This usually happens when an appellate lawyer fails to make an argument that an effective lawyer should have. That means someone needs to file a post-conviction petition, after being denied on the direct appeal, and make claims against BOTH of their lawyers. Because it is difficult to get a lawyer to represent you on a post-conviction petition, nearly all of these filings begin as a pro se filing, hopefully with the help of a jailhouse lawyer, or “inmate counsel.” VOTE’s founders and leaders all served as inmate counsel, and collectively we have filed hundreds of petitions.
Lastly, one of the biggest problems with IAC is exactly what Justice Thurgood Marshall warned in Strickland v Washington: the standard is so high, nobody will be able to prove it. To actually WIN an IAC, someone must prove that their counsel failed to do something, or made an objectively wrong non-strategic decision, and this ineffective performance puts doubt on the conviction. Basically, is it reasonable to think the situation would have turned out differently? (Usually, no matter how bad the lawyer, appeals courts will say “it didn’t impact the outcome,” or that it is a “harmless error.”)
The bottom line is that it is very difficult to make an IAC claim. There are endless barriers for incarcerated people to claim IAC, and Derek had to seek review by judge after judge.
Derek Harris’ Claims of IAC
The first thing that is clear in Derek Harris’ post-conviction petition to the LA Supreme Court is how difficult it is to get the courts to review bad lawyering. After waiting four years between his 2004 arrest and 2008 sentencing, it took Derek another TWELVE YEARS to get to the point where the LA Supreme Court said that his case may be reviewed. It still hasn’t been actually reviewed. That comes next, back at the trial court level.
Derek claimed (1) his trial lawyer should have presented a pretty standard “entrapment defense,” whereas the police initiated the drug deal, and the evidence was a video without audio, (2) his trial lawyer should have objected to the Habitual Offender being “mandatory,” because it was not and is not, (3) his trial lawyer should have told him the prosecutor offered him 7 years (this is required under the U.S. Supreme Court, and written into Louisiana law following VOTE’s 2019 advocacy), and (4) his appellate lawyer should have raised the claim about the no-audio DVD.
In 2013, one appellate judge (dissenting from the ruling) saw the situation clearly: the trial judge (a) admittedly didn’t believe Derek, an honorably discharged vet who has had PTSD and drug issues following his return, deserved 30 years in prison, much less to die in prison, and (b) it was clear that the trial judge thought that imposing the Habitual Offender sentence was mandatory. The ruling went against him though, so Derek had to keep trying.
Ironically, the state and federal courts put strict time limits on filing for review, because even if a case is continuously in the courts, from one stage to the next, every case like Harris' will usually span over a decade.
Finally, in 2016, Harris got into district court with his post-conviction petition and his IAC claims.
Post-Conviction Relief, overturning Melinie, and the New Ruling within LA v. Derek Harris
Along with Derek’s IAC claims listed above, he also claimed that the judge should have known that LWOP was not mandatory. In other words, it should not be solely the defense lawyer’s burden to point out every part of the law--certainly one would think anyone issuing a death sentence would know the legality around it.
In 2016, District Court Judge Laurie Huelin ruled that issues regarding sentencing, including IAC and Habitual Offender sentences, cannot be heard on post-conviction relief. Based on a ruling in 1996 (Melinie) judges have interpreted that to mean the 6th Amendment right to counsel at sentencing is not protected under Louisiana law. Overturning Melinie is the heart of Derek’s case. Judge Huelin also ruled that Derek failed to prove his IAC claims. This should come as no surprise, as Derek’s post-conviction attorney did not bother to call trial counsel to the stand. Examining the lawyer is the standard process for every IAC hearing. Basically, Derek was left with a lawyer ineffectively claiming ineffective assistance.
Making matters even worse, Derek Harris had to then argue, pro se, that his post-conviction attorney was also ineffective.
The 2020 LASC Ruling: People’s 6th Amendment right to counsel during sentencing, including Habitual Offender proceedings, can be reviewed by the court
This may seem obvious, because where else would you fight an issue about your lawyer failing to object to the Habitual Offender sentence enhancement? Essentially, the past rulings in Louisiana served to make Derek’s sentence, to die in prison, immune from review, bulletproof, and above the law. Likewise for similar people who have been stonewalled over the past 24 years. The State’s position on Derek Harris being sentenced to die in prison for a tiny bag of cannabis is that the LWOP cannot be reviewed by the appellate judges. The State’s lawyers actually take the position that Louisiana should hand out such severe sentences, and, no matter how faulty the process, the sentence is untouchable. But last week, LASC disagreed with the State’s attorneys.
Previously, people who have turned to the Federal courts for relief would then be told the state court shot you down for “adequate and independent state grounds.” This creates a classic feedback loop, where non-review in one court justifies non-review in another court because it was determined that it is not reviewable.
This new ruling puts hundreds of people in an interesting position. Those who have had similar such claims will need to go back to court. The first case to make its way up the chain, from district court petition on up the appellate chain, will create a precedent as to whether the Harris case is applied retroactively. One appeals circuit could rule that it is retroactive, while another circuit could rule that it isn’t. The precedent won’t be binding on the whole state until, like Derek Harris, the case goes all the way to LA Supreme Court.
Likewise for those challenging their state sentences in federal court. The only way to be certain how the feds will consider this new position is by filing a petition and trying. The Feds are effective at barring the courthouse door since the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Using restrictions such as a 1-year filing deadline, or allowing just one “bite at the apple” (meaning your first petition needs to make every claim). Federal time deadlines also occasionally have more leeway when new rules are announced, such as high profile decisions in Miller, Montgomery, and Ramos. When someone files after a new ruling, there will be debates about issues like “procedural vs. substantive rule,” or “watershed rule,” and whether non-review would be a “miscarriage of justice.” It is quite likely that any federal petition would either be denied or held onto, awaiting the Louisiana court’s final position on the issue.
Justice Crichton, who Justice Genovese agreed with, took his Harris concurring opinion a step further and spoke directly regarding the hundreds of people who have been told, essentially, there is no 6th Amendment right to effective counsel at sentencing. Crichton invoked the debate in Ramos, about the State’s worry of upsetting their status quo:
In its valiant search for reliance interests, the dissent somehow misses maybe the most important one: the reliance interests of the American people. Taken at its word, the dissent would have us discard a Sixth Amendment right in perpetuity rather than ask two States to retry a slice of their prior criminal cases. Whether that slice turns out to be large or small, it cannot outweigh the interest we all share in the preservation of our constitutionally promised liberties. Indeed, the dissent can cite no case in which the one-time need to retry defendants has ever been sufficient to inter a constitutional right forever. Ramos, 140 S.Ct. at 1408.
Justice Crichton writes, plainly, that the administrative burden of reviewing cases such as Derek Harris’ “is far outweighed” by the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel at both trial and sentencing phases. Similar to the Ramos ruling on non-unanimous juries, the District Attorneys of Louisiana and the district court judges of Louisiana might have pondered whether their unique brand of “justice” would hold up under further scrutiny. Interestingly, all the district attorneys and judges are up for election this November 3. J. Crichton thoughtfully applies the Ramos rationale to overturn the instant case, and it appears that at least two LASC justices are firmly in support of someone returning to the courts after previously being told that IAC during sentencing cannot be reviewed.
Unlike Non-unanimous jury convictions, where a retroactive application of Ramos could mean throwing out an entire conviction, the Harris cases would be more like Miller and Montgomery. Those cases also applied to sentencing and threw out those unconstitutionally mandatory LWOP sentences for children still left these people convicted of a crime. Being re-sentenced, or simply having a Habitual Offender sentence enhancement tossed out, does not require witnesses and evidence and juries. The State would not be in such a tight position if dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of sentences are reviewed.
What’s next? Getting back into court
Anyone with a claim that centers on ineffective assistance of counsel during sentencing or legal challenges to the Habitual Offender laws, should consider that a one year clock just started ticking. This may also preserve a federal petition after you have exhausted your state remedies, but that bridge would need to be crossed when the time is right.
There is no need to hastily get “just anything” in immediately. Whether someone is Inmate Counsel, pro se, a family member, or an attorney: it would be wise to check in with VOTE and the Promise of Justice Initiative, to be sure you have the best representation and collectively do our best to ensure this ruling has the broadest impact on the most people.
Excellent work, courage, and faith exhibited by Derek Harris and our incarcerated brothers who supported his petitions along the way. And major shoutout to Harris' (hopefully last) lawyer, Cormac Boyle, a longtime death penalty investigator, who earned his law degree and is putting it to the best use with Promise of Justice Initiative.
Read the full opinion, Louisiana v. Derek Harris here.
As the legislative session winds down, it has become very clear that this is not just an emergency session for Covid-related bills. The final week of this session looks like any other, with bills covering a wide range of topics.
ACTION ALERT: HB 643, HB 529 all need to get a hearing in Senate Judiciary C this week! Call and email Chairman Franklin Foil asking him to put the bills on the agenda TODAY! 225-342-6777 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are some of the bills we’ve been following this session, covering Prison Conditions, Supervision and Discrimination, and Medical Marijuana:
Council on the Children of Incarcerated Parents (CIP): HB729 (Rep. Marcelle). Under the leadership of Daughters Beyond Incarceration (DBI), this entirely new council, to be in the Office of the Governor, would have 17 members (including a representative each from DBI and VOTE, three people who were children when their parents were incarcerated, and one FIP parent). Unlike most councils and commissions about our people, the CIP smartly only has two members of DOC, one representative from the Sheriffs association and one District Attorney.
Medical Services in Jails and Prisons Study: HCR 91 (Rep. Mandie Landry). This resolution will ask VOTE, LSU Health Sciences Center, Loyola Law, and the FIT Clinic to study medical services for the incarcerated, including the impact of COVID-19, and report to the legislature in 2021. This resolution passed the House (80-19), and needs to be heard in the Senate Committee this week.
End Solitary Confinement for pregnant women: HB 344 (Rep. Mandie Landry). This bill originally ended solitary confinement for pregnant women and people with mental illness, but amendments limited its scope to just pregnant women. Still, this bill marks the first time Solitary has been barred in any way, and hopefully future efforts will expand the ban on this inhumane practice.
Veteran’s Mentorship Program: SB 407 (Sen. Kenny Cox). This bill is a “clean up” to our prior expansion of the program, allowing the DOC to actually fulfill the intent of the law and ensure powerful vet mentors are able to help their fellow vets.. It passed through the Senate and House committee with no opposition, and onto the House Floor today for final passage.
Community Supervision and Post-Conviction Discrimination
Parole conditions cap at 5 years: HB 643 (Rep. Jones). This bill would help a few thousand people who have proven to successfully overcome the many obstacles to assimilation after prison, and place them on unsupervised parole. It has made it through the House will be heard this week in Senate Judiciary C.
Proving your incarceration term: HB 529 (Rep. Duplessis). This bill allows people to get documentation regarding their sentence (past or present) from their local Probation and Parole Office. People have previously gone to great lengths trying to prove they have finished the term, to prove identity theft, or qualify for a program.
Voter registration for people on probation: A bill to streamline voter registration (HB 454), which was worked out with the Secretary of State, DOC, and Rep. Sam Jenkins will need to wait on next week’s Special Session.
Studying the barriers to reintegration: HCR 14 The Louisiana Dept. of Health and Dept. of Education will study some of the barriers to reintegration. This is part of a broader movement to really understand why “success” is so difficult, and develop new strategies that work. – Passed the House and heads to the Senate floor this week.
Medical Marijuana: HB 819 Allows any doctor in good standing to recommend marijuana when “in the sincere judgment of the physician, therapeutic cannabis may be helpful to the patient's condition or symptoms.” This should finally allow Louisiana to fully benefit from medical marijuana the way that most other states in America can. The House passed it 77 – 15, and it is up for the full Senate today. Another medical marijuana bill (HB 455) passed the House 80 - 10, and is on the Senate floor. The bill would allow therapeutic marijuana for people in hospice or palliative care. The progress of these bills indicate a major shift on this subject.
Parole eligibility for all juveniles at 25 years: HB 173. The next step after ending mandatory juvenile life w/o parole was creating a parole eligibility at 25 years. This bill would extend that eligibility to every child serving a lengthy adult sentence. It passed the House 68 – 22, and is now in Senate Judiciary B.
Fines and fees--the saga continues: HCR 2 and HCR 3 serve to continue pushing off the JRI Reform that grants people “Ability to Pay” hearings and provides debt relief and incentives for people who can put these bills in front of their rent, phone, food, and transportation. The fact that it will take at least five years to understand the convoluted system of assessing and collecting fines and fees (and lack of accounting) should tell us all we need to know about this historical attempt to fund America’s most expansive criminal legal system on the backs of one of America’s poorest citizens. These will both pass.
Study of homicide data over the past 5 years: HCR 56. The Legislature added Voice of the Experienced to the research team, to provide insight on numbers and statistics that have real world people and situations. This passed the House, and is on to the Senate floor this week.
Retro 80s Throwback Edition - Reminiscent of America’s sordid “Tough on Crime” era, several bills are moving forward without any regard for the modern trend to reduce barbaric sentences that leave us with a prison full of senior citizens facing a global flu pandemic. These bills show that legislators often fail to look at the current maximum sentences, nor do they seem to believe the Louisiana judiciary (the most punitive in the nation) will dole out harsh enough sentences.
For more information on these bills and where things stand as the final week of the legislative session comes to a close, visit our Legislative Corner.
Here's where things stand at the end of this week.
At Gov. John Bel Edwards' daily press conference on Tuesday, Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc announced that he has plans to release what will amount to about 1,100 people. That's not even 2% of the total number of people incarcerated in Louisiana, not including those in ICE facilities or on probation or parole! Not only that, but the plan only applies to those who: are doing time for a nonviolent offense, are within six months of their release date, and already have a residence plan for their release. Even worse, the review board--which includes no formerly incarcerated people--didn't begin until today, will only look at 40 cases at a time, and will require 5 of 6 board members to vote in favor of release. This is a negligible plan that isn't informed by medical or public health experts, and doesn't actually create any true social distancing within facilities. Can you please call Gov. Edwards right now at 225-342-0991 and tell him we demand that more people, especially our elderly and immunocompromised loved ones, come home?! Then can you repeat this call every day, and encourage others to do the same?
Care of Incarcerated People with COVID
On Tuesday, our partners at the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections (DOC). The DOC has been transferring incarcerated people who test positive for COVID-19 from various jails and prisons around the state INTO Camp J, a condemned building at Louisiana State Penitentiary (commonly called Angola) instead of to hospitals, where they need to be. The DOC’s entire plan has been widely criticized by public health experts and civil rights advocates alike. Camp J is a notoriously inhumane facility that was designed as a punishment camp for those serving life without the possibility of parole. The lawsuit calls on the DOC to halt the plan immediately and ensure people with COVID-19 receive adequate care.
On Wednesday morning, Louisiana Republican lawmakers blocked an emergency election plan that would expand mail-in voting, early voting and make other changes to the state’s delayed presidential primary election because of the coronavirus pandemic. This has negative implications for ensuring fair and equitable elections, for our newly eligible voters with conviction histories, and for democracy as a whole.
Last, our first virtual VOTE meeting on Wednesday afternoon was a big success! At more than 100 attendees strong, we gathered online to support each other, answer as many questions as we could about our work and your loved ones on the inside, and discussed next steps in bringing our loved ones home. Watch a recap of the call here.
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On Saturday, Patrick Jones died of the coronavirus while inside Oakdale prison in Allen Parish. Seven others from Oakdale are currently hospitalized because the pandemic has been spreading among the 990 men held at this facility. Positive cases are also confirmed at Angola, as well as in jails in Jefferson, Orleans, and Ascension Parishes. The spread among facilities is quickly catching up to--and will eventually surpass--the rate among the broad public. In NYC, for example, the infection rate in jails is already EIGHT TIMES that of outside the jail.
For the past three weeks we've been calling on decisionmakers at every level to immediately release as many people from these facilities as possible so that not only do they not endure the same fate as Patrick did, but they don't put thousands of others in harm's way, too, by spreading the virus.
The answer we keep hearing? "We're working on it."
That's vague. It's irresponsible. It's not something that consoles our families who are worried sick about their loved ones on the inside.
Gov. Edwards must take swift action before he has blood on his hands.
We DEMAND that IN THE NEXT FOUR DAYS,
he does the following FOUR EMERGENCY ACTIONS:
1) Grant 180-days Good Time to allow everyone within 6 months of going home to get home;
2) Issue medical parole for everyone with respiratory conditions, anyone who is immunocompromised, and anyone over 60 years old;
3) Provide masks and gloves to all staff and incarcerated people who remain; and
4) Create a jail and prison COVID-19 oversight commission under the Office of Public Health and CDC, with the power to interview sick people, enforce basic medical standards, and ensure families have a right to know about the health of their loved ones.
Can you help us make these demands by calling these three people today?
Gov. John Bel Edwards: 225-342-0991
U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, MD: 202-224-5824
U.S. Representative Ralph Abraham, MD:
if you live in Central Louisiana call 318-445-0818
if you live in Northeast Louisiana call 318-322-3500
if you live in South Louisiana call 985-516-5858
Read the full demands letter that we sent to the Governor here.
Thank you for taking action. We are sending you and your loved ones love, persistence and hope in these times.
I can still remember when I first saw you--
a seemingly random night that brought
a seemingly random discovery,
was really Providence.
Wading into the depths of time to merge our storied paths.
A small step back into history
and there you were,
sitting atop the town.
Gracious. Humble. Secret.
I immediately knew I had uncovered something special
some part of me.
You draw me closer to you.
At first approach, I can feel you embrace me.
Warm. Inviting. Honest.
One deep look into you
and you begin to whisper your secrets.
Though time has faded and chipped away
You still gleam with beauty and elegance,
Poised there over the city.
I see you grin as you take in all her stories
and witness all her changes.
Yet you remain unchanged,
A timeless beauty.
Gilded. Golden. Graying. Gracious.
That place in my heart that I share with no one.
My own private room
of silence, solitude, and security.
I gaze up at you in our secret embrace
and I am lost.
I do not know the year.
I do not know the day.
I do not know the hour.
I only know here.
I only know now.
You hear my fears and see my tears.
When I am away from you,
my heart sojourns back to you.
A stolen piece of history
Spirited into my world
With no judgment,
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to email@example.com and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Angelo D. Golatt is currently incarcerated at David Wade Correctional Center.
First and foremost, we are here for you. These are turbulent times, and we want to remind you that we love you, we are with you, and we will get through this together. Here are a few updates on where things stand with our incarcerated loved ones and with for members at home.
Our incarcerated loved ones
Most important, now is the time to bring as many of our loved ones in jails and prisons home. When the virus hits facilities, it will spread like wildfire among 2.3 million people. A federal lockdown that further punishes and tears families apart is not the solution. Rather, we demand that our elderly, anyone with existing health conditions, those doing time for nonviolent offenses, anyone in jail on technical violations or misdemeanors, and anyone in jail awaiting trial go NOW! We also demand that routine police stops, warrants, and any unnecessary arrests cease immediately.
Can you help us make these demands by calling and emailing the following today?
Mayor: (504) 658-4900
Baton Rouge Sheriff: (225) 389-5000
New Orleans Sheriff: (504) 822-8000
Governor: (225)342-7015 or (225)342-0991
DOC: (225) 342-9711
Governor John Bel Edwards
Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, Louisiana Supreme Court
James L. Le Blanc, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections
firstname.lastname@example.org & JMLeBlanc@corrections.state.la.us
Dr. James Beuche, Deputy Secretary, Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice
Sheryl Ranatza, Chair, Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole
Steve Russo, Acting Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health
Matthew Block, Executive Counsel to the Governor
Jonathan Vining, DOC General Counsel
Leslie Ricard Chambers, Esq., Criminal Justice Policy Advisor
Michael Ranatza, Executive Director, Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association
You can also encourage others to call by sharing this image on Facebook, signing our national pledge, email this letter to your elected officials, and tracking what other jails and prisons around the country are doing to decarcerate.
Our membership at home
We know many of our members are experiencing financial hardships due to this virus. We are working in coalition to demand that our elected officials implement paid sick leave for all workers in Louisiana and beyond. Until then, you can file for unemployment insurance for a maximum of $247/week. Download the instructions here. There are also new rules around keeping utilities on, preventing evictions, etc. Read them here. If you're in the greater New Orleans area, you can also give/receive help with funds, transportation, food, and more via the community mutual aid network. If you have children under 18, they can get a grab-and-go free meal at any of these locations. And these free meal locations are for anyone of any age. To find out about resources in Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and statewide, go here.
The 2020 Louisiana Legislature has been postponed until March 31. When it resumes, we will do everything in our power to make sure that we have a voice in the laws and reforms being made on our behalf. Check out what bills we'll be fighting for, and contact us if you or a loved one have been affected any of them. If you're also willing to record a video testimony, you can do so on your phone and email it to us.
The presidential primary election in Louisiana has been postponed until June 20. That also means the new registration deadline is May 20 (in person or by mail) and May 30 (online). In other words, please keep registering to vote! You can do so online here. Remember: you can vote if you are currently on probation, have been on parole for at least five years, or have finished your probation or parole time. You'll need to call your probation and parole office, first, and ask them to mail you a signed and sealed Voter Registration Form with your information on it.
The 2020 Census is still underway--fill it out online anytime before April 1. Please take 10 minutes to do so. Your responses make sure all of us--including loved ones still behind bars--are counted. They help lawmakers decide where necessities like stores, schools and housing are built in our communities.
If you have any questions or concerns regarding your loved ones in jails or prisons, where our work stands, or any of the above, please call us at 504-571-9599. We are available between 9am and 5pm, Monday through Friday.
This legislative session we’re introducing our most ambitious line up of bills yet. In order to win them, we need to show up at the Capitol as one strong and unified voice. That means we need more people with direct experiences of incarceration to speak up and speak out about the injustices they have faced. How? Check out these tips for successful advocacy, which work whether we’re sitting in one-on-one meetings with our elected officials, testifying in front of legislative committees, or making a speech in front of an audience on the Capitol steps.
1. Be prepared and brief.
We can expect all types of questions about our bills from both our supporters and the opposition. On top of that, we usually only have a few minutes of a legislator’s time to gain their support. We need to know what we’re going to say and be brief with it! Instead of writing out a full script (which can sound too practiced or, worse, fake) we like to make a list of two or three main points to really hit home, sandwiched by a short introduction and conclusion. Legislators hear so many people speak about bills every day, so use a strong opening statement to really grab their attention. For example, the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana is lobbying for bill HB 344, which would ban prisons from putting pregnant women and people with mental illness in solitary confinement. In practicing her testimony for HB 344, which would ban the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women and people with mental illness, Shametria Gonzales opened with, “Ending solitary confinement isn’t only a moral issue, it’s a bipartisan issue.” This hard-hitting and concise phrase sets the tone for a powerful testimony.
2. Be honest.
Our credibility is central to our relationships at the Capitol, so being honest in our conversations and testimonies is a must. There will be times when legislators ask tough questions about the facts of a bill. There’s no need to make something up or exaggerate anything. When we don’t know the answer, the best response we can offer is, “I’m not sure, I’ll find out and get back to you quickly.” Of course, our lived experiences are also our truth, and legislators who have never been incarcerated themselves need to hear them. As long as we stick to what we know, we will be successful.
3. Be respectful.
Speaking of relationships: keep it real, but be respectful. This helps us form new alliances and maintain the old. Even though there are many legislators who might not understand or respect our movement, we never know who’s watching. For example, during committee hearings, it can be tempting to get up to the podium and clap back at a representative or senator who’s not on our side. But if we attack one legislator, we can lose the important votes of their friends that we need to get our bill passed. Phrases like “great question, let me explain” and “I can see where you’re coming from, but” go a long way towards making legislators feel heard, while not compromising our truth or integrity. Challenge the idea, not the person communicating it. Finding a shared value goes a long way, too.
4. Be yourself.
The best thing we can do is to bring our whole selves with us to the Capitol. The building’s halls and chambers are filled with lobbyists who may be great at rattling off facts and figures, but they don’t know much about our lived experiences, if anything. As a community, that’s our greatest asset. “[VOTE] is bringing the directly impacted people,” says Rep. Ted James, the new Chairman of the Justice Committee. “Our personal stories are what move people and the needle.” This work can be tiring and make us want to not share what we know, but just remember that we all have each other’s backs. When we go to the Capitol as a Blue Wave, it’s not just to fight injustice, but to lean on each other in the process, too.
Ready to get engaged?
Got all of the above down pat? Find a bill (or two or five) that you have experience with and get in touch about testifying. A few bill examples include:
HB 380 will ensure that someone who is offered a plea deal will be told all of the consequences they’ll face by agreeing to it. If you’ve ever taken a plea bargain and were not fully told ahead of time about how it would affect your ability to find a job, housing or go to school, this bill is for you.
HB 339 will give all incarcerated people, including lifers, a chance to go before the parole board and be considered for release. If you know someone doing life, or were once doing life yourself but got out on a new law, we need to hear from you!
The Fair Chance in Hiring Bill will reduce the number of barriers employers are allowed to set up against people with convictions. Right now, many job applications from people with convictions are tossed out as soon as the employer finds out about it. If this bill passes, employers will only be allowed to reject the application if the conviction is related to the job. “This bill would make it possible for people like me to get more than a minimum-wage job,” says Kisha Edwards, of The First 72+. If you’re in the same boat as Kisha, please consider testifying on this bill!
If you have experience with any of the issues we’re tackling this session, your story can help us win. Drop a note to our Membership Coordinator, Ilona Prieto, at email@example.com and we’ll get you prepared to testify when the time comes!