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!