Ariel’s story is the first of a short series we’ll be doing in the coming days to honor the women of color who are leading the movement to end mass incarceration. If you feel inspired by these women’s stories, please help us reach our goal of raising $2,000 for formerly and currently incarcerated women and girls this #GiveNOLADay.
After Hurricane Katrina, Ariel Jeanjacques frequently traveled between New Orleans, her home, and Texas, where her mom lived. On one weekend visit when she was 25 years old, she went out with her sisters, just hoping to blow off some steam. Instead, they were assaulted by a group of strangers who fled quickly thereafter. She called the police, expecting them to uphold their duty to protect and serve, but when they arrived on scene, they only escalated the violence. “They told me I was going to jail and tried to put me in handcuffs,” she says. “But they wouldn’t tell me why.” She later learned that the reason was an unpaid speeding ticket she was unaware she had. “The officer was manhandling me, grabbing me, pushing me, cursing me, and not telling me where I was going.” Nervous, confused, and traumatized from all the violence, Ariel tried to defend herself. “I was tired and scratched his hand, and because of that I was sentenced to 10 years.”
Because she had been involved in local activism through organizations such as The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Ariel had a group of people supporting her and speaking out against the injustice she faced. After 4 years of court dates back and forth, they helped her reduce her sentence to 4 months in prison and 6 years of probation. Though Ariel felt immense gratitude for her community, she also knew that she was one of few people who had that kind of support.
Today, Ariel uses this experience and many others to fuel her work as the Program Coordinator for the New Orleans chapter of the Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice national network. Every day, she helps countless survivors try to find healing and justice for the senseless crimes they experience. In the process, she reminds both herself and other survivors of assault that, despite how often it happens, it is never ok to be punished for trying to defend yourself. She learns and re-learns a lesson we often come back to at VOTE, which is that punishment does not work. Ariel’s work with VOTE completes the circle of relationships between those who experience a crime, those who carry out a crime, and the many family members and friends in between who are affected by the incident. She speaks on behalf of all parties involved in a crime when she says that “clearly incarceration is not making us any safer--it is just not the answer.”
From day to day, Ariel plays many roles. When a violent crime happens in one of the many communities her work touches, she arrives on scene and advocates not only for survivors but many times for alternatives to incarceration. She mediates between the actual wants and needs of survivors and the systems telling them to respond in certain ways. She offers ideas for rehabilitation, healing and recovery, not for jails and prisons. And like the other organizers at VOTE, she goes back into the neighborhoods she’s from and rallies others willing and eager to join the movement for restorative justice. She teaches them the ropes and connects them to a larger network of people doing this work throughout the nation. Earlier this month, she did that by traveling with four other survivors to the 5th Annual Survivors Speak Conference in Sacramento, California.
Held every year during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, which falls during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Survivors Speak convenes survivors from across the country. Hundreds of attendees hail from communities adversely affected by multiple forms of violence, including state violence, street violence and interpersonal violence that happens in the homes, at workplaces, and everywhere in between. They gather together to share their stories, honor those who have passed and are behind bars, and advance agendas for policies and programs that actually help everyone who has experienced violence. They mourn the prevalence of violence and celebrate the strength of their ever-growing group of passionate changemakers.
This year, more than 700 people attended the 3-day conference, and Ariel was floored. Between breakout sessions where lead organizers like herself introduced their chapters and what they were working on in the states they came from, Ariel and her crew visited healing rooms complete with stress-relieving activities, got massages hosted by the conference, and indulged in the ice cream that was handed out. “Some the survivors had never had a massage in their life and they really needed one,” she says, smiling. “And when survivors from around the country stood in front of the audience and told their stories for the first time ever, that moment touched me a lot and made me really emotional. Especially to a room full of hundreds of people--that’s really powerful.” The power of those moments was not lost on Ariel. “That’s the first step to healing,” she says. “Telling your story.”
Since her return, Ariel has been feeling really inspired to keep pushing the work forth. She’s speaking truth to power by telling the stories of the many survivors in her communities, and interrupting the narratives shared by those who don’t live there. “Hurt people are the ones that hurt people,” says Ariel, sharing a mantra we talk about often at VOTE. “You know, if those people are not hurt--not hurting--they have no reason to go out and hurt other people. If they don’t experience hurt, [hurting others] won’t be the solution to their problems.”
Ariel has seen firsthand that when people have the tools and resources they need to not just survive, but thrive, they are able to help interrupt cycles of hurt, abuse and violence. One of these people is Ms. Marilyn Shaw, a survivor from Avondale who lives through not only the murder of her only son in January 2015, but the continued violence of so-called detectives who put false charges on her and refuse to investigate his murder. Ms. Shaw was one of the survivors Ariel brought with her to Sacramento.
“Survivors Speak was just an overwhelming experience for her,” she recalls. “It was her first time traveling outside of New Orleans, her first time flying. She cried. For her to connect with people who were in the same situation as her, who lost their only child due to gun violence, she felt really motivated. The conference lifted her spirit, gave her a sense of power and also motivation to keep going because she was at a point of wanting to give up.”
Ms. Shaw is one of the many survivors on Ariel’s heart right now. These powerful survivors, along with her 2-year-old son Wylae, are her inspiration. Some of them are behind bars serving time for simply trying to defend themselves, while others are marching alongside her at events like our first annual Formerly and Currently Incarcerated Women and Girls Day last December. No matter where they currently are, together they are building a future where healing, truth, safety, justice and freedom abound.
Ariel’s story is the first of a short series we’ll be doing in the coming days to honor the women of color who are leading the movement to end mass incarceration. If you feel inspired by these women’s stories, please help us reach our goal of raising $2,000 for formerly and currently incarcerated women and girls this #GiveNOLADay.
Over the past few days, VOTE and our allies have experienced a few setbacks along our journey to the full restoration of civil and human rights for formerly and currently incarcerated people. Below are our official statements on the following decisions that were recently made by the Louisiana House of Representatives and the Louisiana Court of Appeal for the First Circuit, respectively.
On House Bill 265 - decision made April 17:
Last night the Louisiana House of Representatives voted in opposition to House Bill 265, an important voting rights bill that would restore this fundamental right to the approximately 71,000 Louisianans currently on probation and parole.
In 2016, a similar voting rights bill lost 60-37. Since that time, the total number of people without the right to vote in Louisiana has been close to 200,000. This year’s bill, HB 265, lost by a vote of 53-35, with nobody standing up in vocal opposition. We are closing the gap. Though it is clear that civil rights and public safety still have a long way to go, an incremental victory is worth noting along the long arc of justice. It has been more than a century since those who drafted the 1901 constitution openly condemned democracy using an overtly racist platform, and wins along the way do not go uncelebrated.
Through this legislation and litigation (VOTE v. Louisiana), the public has gained a civics education and witnessed a steady shift of the narrative. It is important to recognize that the legislators were not swayed by the testimony of a judge (who never sentenced anyone to lose their voting rights), a probation officer (who recognized that the public is safer by encouraging people to be engaged in positive, pro-social behavior), and a historian (who noted that this was not the intent of the Louisiana voters when ratifying the constitution). They were also not swayed by three disenfranchised people discussing the impacts of voting on their families, their faith, and their positive connection with the political process.
There can be no progress without struggle. This is the path to building power and shaping the movement. “Every disenfranchised person knows at least two people who can and do vote,” says Norris Henderson, VOTE’s Executive Director. “Eventually, those who resist democracy will be on the wrong side of history.” In 2019, legislators across the state are up for reelection.
On VOTE v. Louisiana - decision made April 13:
At the end of last week, the Louisiana Court of Appeal for the First Circuit affirmed dismissal of our lawsuit, VOTE v. Louisiana, yet we are not finished. We are gearing up to take our fight for the restoration of 71,000 formerly incarcerated people's voting rights to the Louisiana Supreme Court. “From the very beginning, we felt this case belonged in the Louisiana Supreme Court,” says our Executive Director Norris Henderson. “The judges seeing this case so far are upholding a law that we know is unconstitutional. The Louisiana Supreme Court is best positioned to right this wrong. They can proclaim once and for all that the Louisiana Constitution guarantees the right to vote, a vote that can only be suspended during, not after, incarceration. For VOTE members, that day cannot come soon enough. We are human beings who have done everything that’s been asked of us. The state needs to make good on the promise of the right to vote we have based on the Constitution.”
In a March 2017 ruling granting summary judgment to the state in VOTE v. Louisiana, 19th Judicial District Judge Tim Kelley said that, even though he was ruling against plaintiffs, he thought this was unfair. VOTE appealed the ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeal, arguing that the Constitution explicitly guarantees the right to vote to all people who are not “under an order of imprisonment,” including those on probation and parole. The First Circuit’s decision today, which rejects this interpretation, paves the way for an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The Court’s opinion defers to enactments of the legislature, which is currently considering HB 265, a bill that would restore voting rights sooner. VOTE is supporting this legislative change. It passed out of a committee in the House of Representatives last week on a 7-2 vote and could face a vote on the House floor early next week.
“This coming week, elected officials have the opportunity to stand on the side of the right to vote,” said Bruce Reilly, our Deputy Director. “Bills like HB 265, which would allow people on parole and probation to regain their voting rights sooner, will be voted on. Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration nationwide and the highest numbers of families directly impacted by criminal convictions. Passing HB 265 would open the doors of democracy to parolees and probationers who have been out of prison for five or more years. Whether it’s the courts recognizing our right to vote – as stated in the constitution – or the legislature making clear its intentions, VOTE will keep fighting all the way to victory.”
Read the full piece from our partners at Advancement Project.
People with criminal records face a lot of gatekeeping every day. From employers to landlords to the state government, formerly incarcerated people who are back in their communities are judged and rejudged all the time, despite having served their sentences. By being so stigmatized and having inalienable rights such as the right to vote taken away from us, we are being pushed to behave anti-socially. This legislative session, there are many bills that could alter this reality--some for better, some for worse. Here are two that are up to bat next Wednesday, April 11. Help us take action now!
What We’re Fighting For: HB 265
House Bill 265 would stop disenfranchising people under community supervision (otherwise known as those on probation or parole). Specifically, it would give voting rights back to anyone who has not been incarcerated for the past five years, including:
Send a letter to your Reps. NOW asking them to vote YES on HB 265!
Our goal is to send 500 letters by next Wednesday!
HB 265 would restore the fundamental birthright of citizenship for most of the 70,000 people currently disenfranchised in Louisiana. Although the bill does not go as far as our lawsuit, it is an important step we believe the legislature is ready to take to put an end to this cruel and unusual punishment of suspending citizenship.
What We’re Fighting Against: HB 417
Though voting is a right, many try to frame it as a “privilege” reserved for certain people. This is the message behind HB 417, which we strongly oppose. HB 417 creates gatekeepers of citizenship by, first, only allowing people convicted of nonviolent (v. violent) crimes to vote, and, second, requiring them to complete 200 hours of community service before being eligible to vote. In prison, people are not treated differently based on their conviction being “violent” or “nonviolent.” People who never went to prison but are on probation are not treated differently by their probation officer due to the nature of their crime. Why should the right to vote be treated any differently? This is an unconstitutional discretion under the Louisiana constitution, and also creates a logistical nightmare regarding where one does their service and who is eligible to sign off on its completion.
Call your Reps. NOW and tell them to vote NO on HB 417!
People join VOTE because they know we want to build a better society. We want rehabilitation and restoration of the community, and that is the only form of discrimination (read: discernment) we use. The only question we ask is: are people acting in a constructive or destructive manner? People who want to vote are being denied by the current legislature, and that helps nobody. Let’s convince these legislators that they can reverse the sorry history of disenfranchisement in Louisiana, and instead encourage people to lead positive, pro-social, community-building lives. Thank you!
For the past year and a half, we’ve been sending surveys to incarcerated people at various facilities in the state and collecting the results. The following list synthesizes the wants, needs, hard truths and hopeful questions present in the responses we received. While it is by no means comprehensive, this list sheds light on how to move from where we stand to where we need to be in order to best serve those to whom we are most accountable. Have an idea, recommendation or question? Share it in the comments!
1) The costs in prison are burdensome, from visits, to canteen costs, to the prohibitive price of phone calls to loved ones. Families are using money they don't have to stay connected and provide support.
GAPS IN ‘REENTRY’
2) If someone is serving a long sentence, they are usually not eligible for the few rehabilitative programs currently available, which means they can't really prepare for parole or clemency.
3) Generally, only people who are going to be released soon are eligible for reentry.
4) The Certified Treatment and Reentry Programs (CTRP) are not really "treatment" programs. No one ever asks questions about our well-being, our families, or how we have changed. [Find out what we consider to be the true Principles of Reentry.]
5) There were questions about the enforcement of Act 150, which requires the sheriff to provide a comprehensive report of the Offender Reentry Support Pilot Program within 24 months of implementation.
6) From people convicted of a sex offense:
a) Reentry is extremely challenging, finding housing and jobs is nearly impossible.
b) They can't go to shelters. There are some shelters that allow it, but if the shelter isn't approved by LA Dept. of Public Safety and Corrections (LADPSC), they can't go.
c) Fees to pay for sex offender registration once released is a burden to reentry.
d) If those convicted of a sex offense could be in the work release program, not only would they pay the exorbitant fees required to participate, but LADPSC would also be able to better monitor them (i.e. LADPSC would benefit).
7) Many asked if there are any efforts to remove certain crimes off the "crimes of violence" list.
8) Many letter writers asked VOTE and other allied organizations to send them more information about the current criminal justice reform happening.
9) People asked about statewide or national correspondence support programs, such as one that sets people up to be pen pals with inmates.
10) Many incarcerated people spoke about the lack of mental health programs in prisons because there are not enough medical staff. This leaves them feeling like they have no one to speak with about mental health.
Though this list paints the grim reality of the current state of mass incarceration, it also gives us the blueprint for our work. VOTE is one of a few organizations worldwide that was founded by and continues to take marching orders from those directly impacted by this dehumanizing system. As we gear up for a busy legislative session set to address many of the issues addressed here, we need all hands on deck. Will you join us for Lobby Day on March 27?
Our statewide organizer Dolfinette Martin hypes up the crowd at the oral arguments on Feb. 27.
On Tuesday, February 27, our members filled the courtroom at LSU Law School to hear the oral arguments in VOTE v. Louisiana, a case that, if successful, would restore voting rights to roughly 40,000 people on probation and 30,000 people on parole. These people, who are under community supervision, do not fall within the group of people who the state may constitutionally suspend voting rights. Iconic civil rights lawyer and professor Bill Quigley, lead attorney for Voice of the Experienced, argued his 15 minutes before a three-judge panel.
Shortly after Prof. Quigley began his argument to focus on the three steps of constitutional analysis, Judge Holdridge began his line of intense inquiry. Whereas the constitution allows the state to suspend the rights of people “under order of imprisonment,” Holdridge remained focused on the initial court orders that put 30,000 impacted people into prison. The Orders of Commitment are indeed orders, and do send someone to prison, which is also a prerequisite for parole.
Judge Holdridge’s focus on someone’s prior incarceration overlooks the fact that additional orders impact the life of a convicted person. A parole board will order the release of someone from prison. Their decisions carry the force of law under the Executive Branch.
1. the arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method.
2. an authoritative command, direction, or instruction.
"he was not going to take orders from a mere administrator"
The constitution does not call specifically for a “judicial” order, there are other orders issued in civil and criminal society.
Someone under parole supervision is under Order of Release by the parole board, not the judicial Order of Imprisonment.
Judge Holdridge, who spoke about as much as attorney Quigley, inquired whether there should be separate classes for people on probation and for those on parole. His inquiries with the State’s attorney exposed the fact that many people are on probation without any threat of prison time, or with a deferment of prison time. This, in turn, elicited a statement by the State that they have no idea how many people are allowed to vote or are currently voting with these types of probation sentences.
Multiple times, the Secretary of State has agreed that people on probation with no suspended sentence should be voting.
We have yet to see them clarify this on their website, on their registration materials, with their parish boards of electors, nor with any public service announcements. We will continue pushing them to do so.
The State’s attorney, Lani Durio, did not seem very familiar with criminal law, referring to probation and parole as “conditional releases.” Probation is not a release and does not follow incarceration. There is no re-entry involved with probation. The drafters of the 1974 law chose to use a phrase that does not appear anywhere else in the law: “under order of imprisonment”. Thus, for the State to say its “generally understood meaning” is to include probation and parole is not very accurate. The phrase is not generally understood at all, evidenced by the fact that a polling of the current parish boards of electors were not clear on the law; the constitutional scholar of the time asserts that only people in prison (and escapees) are “under order of imprisonment” (a scholarly article that Judge Holdridge strangely referred to as hearsay); and voting guides distributed in 1974 referred to voting rights being gained for people upon release from prison.
“Don’t you think it would be a good policy of the State to encourage people to do good and to vote?” – Judge Holdridge.
This question, asked of the Secretary of State’s lawyer, perfectly embodied the third required inquiry of whether a challenged statute is constitutional. Professor Quigley had noted that the State has not met their burden and (as well written in the brief) the State has not indicated the compelling state interest of denying people who pay taxes the right to vote. Unless the State defines their legitimate interest, we can’t assess whether or not it is narrowly tailored.
The American Probation and Parole Association wrote its response to Holdridge’s question in its brief. Yes, the State should be encouraging voting and civic engagement, the Association says, and it does have an interest in supporting positive behaviors. This is how we increase rehabilitation and public safety. Denying voting rights impacts people’s ability to become upstanding citizens.
Is voting a right or a privilege?
Few statements by Judge Holdridge caused more furrowed eyebrows than: “I don’t think all 70,000 deserve the right to vote.” Professor Quigley pointed out in clear terms that voting is undeniably a right, and is clearly and unequivocally guaranteed to all resident citizens of Louisiana over 18. We live in a nation where half the people do not vote, a mere 25% of our population can decide the President, and many people condemn uninformed voters to the point of suggesting they shouldn’t have the right to vote.
The concept that voting rights could be suspended for some, while not others, is exactly the tortured history of voter suppression that the 1974 constitution was supposed to finally eliminate.
Another common red herring that gets thrown in voting rights debates is “what about the right to bear arms” and other rights? In this case, Professor Quigley had the perfect response, because Section 20 of the constitution refers to all rights being restored upon completion of prison and supervision. Section 10 refers specifically to voting rights. Every lawyer knows that the specific provision trumps the general provision. Thus, in our case, the framers of the constitution accounted for every general right in Section 20, while drafting one specific section that covers one specific right: voting. We are not challenging the general rights of Section 20.
Constitutional interpretation requires judges to reconcile any perceived conflicts within the full document. Each section must be given an independent purpose and meaning, if possible. If the voting rights provision has no unique purpose, and if “under order of imprisonment” is no different than the broad and understandable (prison, probation, parole) language of Section 20, the court would not be giving Section 10 any independent meaning at all.
The court has until April 4th to rule. That day is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King being assassinated. Few decrees could be more fitting that day than a victory for universal voting rights. Some possibilities include:
· The court could flat out rule against us, at which point we would appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court (who must have the final word, regardless of the path the case takes).
· The court could overrule the district court, and make this determination of law without any further evidence gathering required. At that point, the State would appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
· The court could send the case back to the district court with instructions (“remand”), such as holding an evidentiary hearing to gather more information on what is actually happening in the process (people’s specific orders, the types of sentences, what is happening with registrations, the public understanding of 1974, what the state’s compelling interest is, etc.). The court could also instruct the district court on what processes and standards to follow when deciding the constitutionality of a statute.
Our incredible legal team, which started with a call-out to our local civil rights family, has been bolstered by the expertise and dedication of Advancement Project. We went into this appeal with well-crafted arguments of law, policy, and morality. Whatever the court rules, we will be ready to continue the struggle to secure this fundamental right of citizenship.
Yesterday, VOTE members headed to LSU's School of Law bright and early to have our voices heard at the oral arguments for our lawsuit, VOTE v. Louisiana. Members from all corners of the state--from New Orleans to Lafayette to Shreveport--came out to share their stories. At the press conference before the hearing, several speakers took the mic to share different perspectives on why voting rights matter. Among them were VOTE member and lawsuit plaintiff Randy Tucker, who spoke about the role of God and religion in this fight; Loyola University College of Law Professor Andrea Armstrong, who helped author the constitutional scholars' brief; Felicia Smith, a Shreveport VOTE member and new part-time staff member, who shared her story of incarceration; and Professor Davida Finger, who read from the APPA brief endorsing VOTE's position in this case.
Following the press conference, our partners at Advancement Project led a teach-in about the history behind the lawsuit and what to expect from the case moving forward. Members were also briefed on how oral arguments typically work and how they can engage.
When our case was heard, Professor Bill Quigley answered questions from the judges about what it means to be on probation or parole and more. While tensions were high in the court room, VOTE is confident that this was a positive step for our case, and that, ultimately, we will win.
Watch the Facebook live recording of the press conference here!
Watch Executive Director Norris Henderson's closing remarks following the hearing here.
Yesterday's action was one of many coming up, and we need you to come out and help us win the movement to end mass incarceration! Sign up to join us at our events in March!
VOTE members came out in droves at the Felony Classification Task Force meetings. The result? They officially recommended that the Legislature create a felony class system that will categorize existing crimes and provide sentencing guidelines for judges to follow! We have many more events like this coming up. Join us!
It’s the most joyous time of the year at the VOTE office, not only because of Mardi Gras but because we’re gaining serious momentum in local and state criminal justice reform.
Last week, the Louisiana Felony Classification Task Force officially recommended that the Legislature create a felony class system to categorize existing crimes and provide corresponding sentencing guidelines for judges to follow. Members of the Task Force made their decision in response to a plethora of powerful testimonies from formerly incarcerated people, their loved ones and allies. The full report includes four specific recommendations, which include:
While we still have work to do in order to get the recommended legislation authored and passed, this victory is a major step in the right direction for our members and those most impacted by the system. If you want to be part of next steps, sign up to join us at future actions.
Our lawsuit--VOTE v. Louisiana--is also swiftly moving forward. On February 27, the judges will hear oral arguments from both sides, and we are aiming for a big turnout of supporters on that day. The hearing will be held at the LSU Law School. Join us.
“The court needs to feel the gravity of this case, and the importance of voting rights as the cornerstone of a free democracy,” says Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director. “The best way to do that is showing the collective will of the people.”
If we win this case, over 70,000 Louisianans under community supervision will be able to vote again. We will send a strong message throughout the state and nation that outdated laws based on institutional racism are unacceptable.
“The remnants of slavery need to go,” says Reilly. “This law impacts all people, Black and white, by watering down our democracy and telling those of us that are formerly incarcerated that we are unwelcome and unwanted. Our case is as part of a long legacy of historic civil rights struggles. The time to end 150-year-old second-class citizenship is now.”
We need the judges to see that this is a movement fueled by people power. Our goal is to have more than 100 people show up on the 27th. RSVP now.
Can’t make it that day? As the 2018 Legislative session approaches, we will have many opportunities to attend events that will push to restore the rights of formerly incarcerated people. On March 2, we will head to Southern University for a statewide summit on upcoming legislative activities, and on March 27 we will replicate last year’s lively Lobby Day at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge. Sign up to be at some or all of these events.
Yesterday, the people of Florida overcame a huge hurdle to restoring citizenship to 1.8 million people who have had their voting rights taken away due to a criminal conviction. For decades, elections have focused in on Florida's voters; and for decades, commentators and politicians have spoken about America's democracy without even mentioning the lifetime denial of democracy's cornerstone: voting rights. One might have thought this was an easy ask, to give universal voting rights, considering that Florida's own study proved that people who voted had lower rates of recidivism.
This effort was led by directly impacted people, struggling for freedom, citizenship, and a place to stand. People who struggled to find resources to build an infrastructure to move forward for themselves. Last year, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition brought VOTE's Norris Henderson and Bruce Reilly to their retreat. We saw first hand who was involved and what they brought to the table. Their assembly of leaders from throughout the state made a commitment to gather 766,200 signatures to get this issue on the ballot. It was clear to us that these people, many who had no current right to vote, had the strength of character and determination to pull of such an unlikely victory. Desmond Meade has proven his leadership, and how essential it is that leadership reflect the people whose rights are at stake.
Coming on the heels of Alabama's highly publicized impact of jail-based voter registration by The Ordinary People's Society, Florida's ballot initiative and Louisiana's litigation (VOTE v. Louisiana) are indications that the South may indeed "rise again." But after millions of people impacted by the System start to vote, the South will never look the same again.
Local Bishop and movement ally Joe Morris Doss asked members of the Felony Classification Task Force to consider morality and justice in a moving testimony on Friday, January 5.
In honor of the late and great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and this day commemorating his life, VOTE shares the following compelling testimony of Bishop Joe Morris Doss, who, like Dr. King, is a faith leader and freedom fighter. These poignant and truth-telling words were shared before the state-appointed members of the Felony Classification Task Force on Friday, January 5. The Task Force seeks to bring order and clarity to the list of more than 700 crimes considered felonies in Louisiana.
“I wish to make a statement about the fundamental power and purpose of law, one that I believe is offered as a legitimate voice of the mainstream Christian faith community of Louisiana. Then, I want to leave you with one question, among so many, but it is a question relative to sentencing and incarceration that I pray you will seriously and carefully consider in your deliberations: When is it right, just, and most effectively workable for the purposes of law, to continue to incarcerate someone who has been rehabilitated?
Premise #1: The Purpose of the Law
The purpose of the law is to create, establish, and maintain a moral order of society, and where violated to restore it.
A democratic society is constantly working to discover and fashion the order of society it considers moral. Those adhering to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions seek an order reflective of the compassion, righteousness, and justice of God. Christians specifically seek an order that reflects the mind of Christ and is most transparent to the kingdom of God.
Premise #2: The Power of the Law
The power of the law is in its symbolic clout. It points to what is considered moral: to the unity and orderliness of society, to what is truly important to society, to the degree to which certain behavior will not be tolerated in society, and to its power to curse.
For example, in criminal law the sanctions to be imposed for violation of different laws indicate the extent to which an offender will be judged by society. A fine tells potential offenders that they should obey a particular law, but a felony conviction imposes a significant curse on the moral behavior of the offender, and makes her or him an outcast. The law does not work as effectively as a deterrent – not nearly so – in reliance on punishment. A better deterrent is the threat that an offender will genuinely experience the curse or censure of one’s peers, family, friends, circle of society.
The ultimate power of the law is in its ability to restore the moral order after it has been violated; the most effective restoration is reconciliation of the offender to society as a body.
Premise #3: The necessity for justice in the execution of the law
The law must be just and it must be exercised (and this includes it’s correctional systems) with that justice reflective of the moral order it establishes and protects. If so, the citizens are far more likely to respect, cooperate and obey the authorities and the law itself.
If the order of society is sufficiently moral, and justice is applied with equality and fairness for all citizens, the vast majority will be motivated to cooperate with one another and act within the established bounds of law. When the law is applied unequally, with prejudice or malice or insufficient regard for classes, communities, and categories of the citizenry – such as may be defined by race, poverty, or sexuality – the law will not operate effectively within them. In such communities or segments of society, offenders are far less likely to experience the curse of their peers or feel like an outcast when convicted of a crime.
Premise #4: The power of the law to shape the human hearts of society
To the extent that law reflects an order of society that (1) is genuinely perceived as moral and (2) is applied equally and with fairness for all citizens, it is a remarkably powerful tool for challenging and reshaping the opinions, the philosophies, and even the hearts of citizens.
Premise #5: The power of the law to teach immorality
Insights concerning the purpose and power of the law have an underside that has to be recognized and guarded against vigilantly: Immoral law teaches immorality. As one of the guardians of what is moral and of what will make the order of society genuinely moral, of what will best conform society to the mind of Christ, the church is called to be vigilant against acquiescence to that which is immoral and most especially when it is established in law.
One crucial question this poses before you, and the question I leave you: When is it right, just, and most effectively workable for the purposes of law, to continue to incarcerate someone who has been rehabilitated?”
Joe Morris Doss is a bishop of the Episcopal Church and a member of the Louisiana Bar. He has served parishes in Lake Charles, New Orleans, Palo Alto, California, and New Jersey. He has also spent ample time in courts and in the halls of justice, receiving two honorary doctorates for his work outside the strictly institutional lines of the church.
VOTE kicked off this past weekend by taking a trip to the State Capitol to deliver an important message. VOTE members from New Orleans, Baton Rouge and beyond came out in the dozens on Friday afternoon, speaking truth to power at the most recent Felony Classification Task Force meeting.
Louisiana has more than 700 crimes that are considered felonies, yet there is no organized system to ensure uniformity and sentencing by felony type. The Task Force was created as an attempt to bring order to the hodge-podge list of felonies, so that families, lawyers, and judges have more guidance on sentencing ranges. Because the task force is primarily comprised of attorneys appointed by the State, VOTE members felt it was important for the attorneys to hear directly from people most impacted by their decisions.
Many formerly incarcerated people gave touching testimonies about their experiences of being incarcerated and why they believed their sentences were far too harsh. Fox Rich--a local formerly incarcerated woman who hosted the Facebook livestream of our recent First Annual Formerly and Currently Incarcerated Women and Girls Day march--spoke of how her husband and his nephew, who are both still incarcerated, were sentenced to an extremely long sentence for a nonviolent charge.. Another VOTE member, Adinas Perkins, spoke about how her former drug usage led to a prison sentence, yet what she really needed was rehabilitation. “It ain’t necessary that judges have to sentence all these people to prison just because they are addicts,” she said. “Actually they're sick.” Perkins now is an integral member of her community, helping out and sharing her story wherever and whenever she can.
The Task Force began meeting in September and has only one meeting remaining before they present their final report and possible legislative recommendations. VOTE intends to see the Task Force birth a rational felony classification system, and especially wants to see an armed robbery charge returned to sanity, which would mean reducing the maximum sentence from 99 years down to 40 years. VOTE will reject any proposal that will increase mass incarceration by lengthening sentences or creating new mandatory minimums.
Friday’s action is one of many that aim to serve formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones. As VOTE gears up for the legislative session beginning in just a few months, we need all hands on deck to show up and make our presence known. We will continue to fight for criminal justice reform and resist any attempts to roll back last year’s reforms.
-March 2: Statewide Summit, 10:30am - 2:30pm, Southern University, Baton Rouge.
-March 27: Lobby Day, Time TBD, State Capitol, Baton Rouge
We’ll gather to bring the calls for criminal justice reform to the legislature. Last year, more than 600 people turned out. This year, we want to triple our numbers! Invite your friends!