Today Ban the Box, tomorrow Voting Rights. The Louisiana House of Representatives has heard about prisons and prisoners quite a bit in recent years, and now they are also getting an earful about rehabilitation, reentry, recidivism, probation and parole; about people living in the community and facing the policies of exclusion.
Today, the House passed a bill to Ban the Box on state job applications, 53-39, setting an example for the Senate, the Governor, and employers across the state that we need to be more encouraging for people looking for work, especially when work can be hard to find.
Tomorrow, this same chamber will vote on allowing voting rights to our community members trying to assimilate and exercise our most fundamental mark of citizenship: voting. The bill, HB 598, passed out of committee without opposition. VOTE and other advocates made the calls, provided the testimonies, and provided ample reasons for legislators to support the integration of people following convictions, an issue Governor Jon Bel Edwards has agreed is of critical importance.
We need your full support, now, at this critical time we are reducing open discrimination on employment and housing. We need you to make the following calls and emails:
Speaker of the House Taylor Barras
Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger, III (D-91New Orleans)
Governor John Bel Edwards
(225)342-0991 or (844)860-1413
Let these key people and your own representative know that you support voting rights for people living in our community on probation parole, to please use their positions of power to guide the House members to pass HB 598, and send a message every individual in Louisiana is still a member of our families, our communities, and our state. We need to encourage positive behavior, such as voting, and not deny the efforts of people who want to do positive things.
When anyone calls us "Returning Citizens," correct them. They mean well, but the response is "not yet." Not until the 70,000 people on Louisiana, some who "returned" from prison while most were processed through the jail, are restored with the most fundamental and basic right of citizenship: voting.
Open Letter to the Louisiana House of Representatives: Support Reentry- Ban the Box and Restore the Right to Vote!
Dear House and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Michael Danahay,
Members of the Committee, and Members of the House:
Representative Danahay, your sponsorship of a bill to create three additional re-entry courts in Louisiana (HB 347) indicates you understand and wish to alleviate some of the challenges faced by people who are convicted of crimes. Once convicted, people face discrimination throughout all aspects of their life, including 389 different employment barriers, systemic housing discrimination, family interference, and lost voting rights. The message transmitted to people living in the community with convictions has been an anti-social eviction from mainstream society.
On Wednesday, your committee will hear two bills that would send a different message: 'We support your hard work to find a job and we encourage you to do your civic duty and vote.'
Banning the Box on state job applications (HB 266) and restoring voting rights to people on probation and parole (HB 598) will cost the state nothing. Both of these provisions will reduce recidivism and save the state money.
Louisiana has 2.8 million individuals in its criminal records database. Among the people living in the community with a criminal record, most never went to prison, yet face a lifetime of discrimination that was never mentioned by the sentencing judge. Some of this discrimination is personal and some is policy, including the employment barriers and the disenfranchisement of 70,000 people on probation and parole. Studies show that people who have a stable home, are working, and are getting to the polls on election day have a massive reduction in criminal activity.
Felon disenfranchisement is rooted in barring people who might impact elections through forgery, bribery, or perjury at a time when paper ballots and oaths were essential to fair elections. There was a rational relationship between the crimes and the barred activity. Today, there is no relationship between disenfranchisement and fair elections, and the law has only served to promote anti-social behavior, create massive disenfranchisement among Black people, and disrupt the natural progression of teaching civic responsibility from parent to child.
Please encourage your Committee to promote pro-social behavior by voting in favor of banning the box on state job applications and re-enfranchising people on probation and parole. This will encourage people to seek work and vote, whether they are reentering from prison or walked home from the courthouse under the weight of a conviction. We need to create an environment where we give everyone a place to contribute. If we can’t embrace those who want to be part of society, we are shooting all our reentry courts and programs in the foot.
House and Governmental Affairs Committee
Danahay, Michael E. Chairman Dist. 33 D (337)527-5581 email@example.com
Pugh, Stephen E. Vice Chair Dist. 73 R (985)386-7844 firstname.lastname@example.org
Carter, Gary Member Dist. 102 D (504)361-6600 email@example.com
Harris, Lance Member Dist. 25 R (318)767-6095 firstname.lastname@example.org
Harris, Jimmy Member Dist. 99 D (504)243-1960 email@example.com
Hill, Dorothy Sue Member Dist. 32 D (800)259-2118 firstname.lastname@example.org
Ivey, Barry Member Dist. 65 R (225)261-5739 email@example.com
Jenkins, Sam Member Dist. 2 D (318)632-5970 firstname.lastname@example.org
Miller, Gregory A. Member Dist. 56 R (985)764-9991 email@example.com
Morris, John C. "Jay" Member Dist. 14 R (318)362-4270 firstname.lastname@example.org
Schroder, John M. Member Dist. 77 R (985)893-6262 email@example.com
Shadoin, Robert E. Member Dist. 12 R (318)251-5039 firstname.lastname@example.org
Barras, Taylor F. Ex Officio Dist. 48 R (337)373-4051 email@example.com
Leger, Walt III Ex Officio Dist. 91 D (504)556-9970 firstname.lastname@example.org
New Orleans court lands a punch in favor of public defense, while voters reject the "more police" solution
On Friday, Louisiana’s choice to deny people the constitutional right to counsel by underfunding the public defenders reached a critical decision. Judge Arthur Hunter has ordered the release of people where the state failed to provide a capable attorney. This will certainly send shockwaves through the offices of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, Attorney General Jeff Landry, and the state legislature. The order is stayed, pending review of higher courts.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, the voters of New Orleans rejected a proposal for more funding for more police. Many people have been outspoken that we need solutions to the root causes of instability, rather than putting more cops on the street to round up people affected by systemic problems. The timing of Hunter's ruling and the people's vote shows a ripple of change in the way we have been doing criminal justice in New Orleans.
Judge Hunter correctly pointed out that merely appointing attorneys, without providing proper resources, “makes a mockery of the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel.” To illustrate his point of the true crisis in the system (not just the money), the ruling reprints, in full, public defender Tina Peng’s grueling letter about what it looks like to represent several hundred people at a time, where nine investigators are tasked with 18,000 cases per year. Knowing many public defenders and many people charged with crimes makes reading Ms. Peng’s letter feels like watching a schoolyard brawl between your two best friends- where everybody is losing. The lapse in quality representation is grueling on our community, but these idealistic attorneys have been drowning in their valiant attempts to do as much as they can within a system that has been designed for them to fail.
One could argue we reached the appropriate moment for this argument over underfunding decades ago, when crime bills increased the budgets of police forces, funded more prosecutors, created more courts, built more prisons, and left the defense side out in the cold. Regardless of how long we have choked off the Sixth Amendment, we are here now.
One manner of reducing this systematic violation of the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel would be to release more people on bond, or even better, on a promise to appear in court. There are people in the city jail who can’t afford their bond, and people who are not allowed bond despite the fact that their accusation is a technical violation of their probation (meaning: no new crime, just something like a missed drug test or sleeping at their girlfriend’s house instead of their official residence).
Similarly, a lawyer can’t be expected to effectively represent someone who is being held five hours away- so Judge Hunter’s order would seemingly fit perfectly for the hundreds of people sitting upstate and awaiting the Sheriff’s deputies to drive all the way up there and all the way back for a court date, billing the taxpayers gas money that could instead be going to a defense investigator who can talk to witnesses and gather evidence.
Once the city stops petty prosecutions the overall caseload will come down for all. If Saturday's vote was to fund a public works jobs program, or an army of PTSD social workers, or a mental health facility not staffed by law enforcement- crime would have gone down and the people may have voted for it. But when the District Attorney seeks a life sentence for a stolen candy bar- suddenly that defense team must treat the case like a capital case, no differently than if it were a murder case.
Once the jail population is reduced to people awaiting trial who represent only genuine imminent threats, charged with actual serious crimes, then there is plenty of room and, more likely, plenty of money. And that money can be used to address the systemic roots of community instability, and not just for more sets of handcuffs.
Victory! Directly impacted people in New Orleans win America's most progressive public housing policy after four years of organizing!
New Orleans, the conviction capital of America, has just created the nation’s most progressive, and least discriminatory, public housing and Section 8 admissions policy. It is revolutionary. The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) has heard from the people for several years, including back-to-back hearings of standing-room-only crowds. We held a 24-hour vigil prior to the second hearing, which ended with the HANO board vote. The vigil sent a message to all housing providers: this is the right direction for our community, and we won’t stand for anything less.
Discrimination based on convictions, rather than race, have entered all parts of our lives since launching the Drug War nearly 50 years ago. Just last week came the revelation from President Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, that the Drug War was always a lie- it was merely a way to target and criminalize Black people and people on the Left. It has worked perfectly. By “disrupting communities,” political power is neutralized.
The vigil organized by Stand With Dignity and VOTE successfully brought together a few hundred people for teachings and story circles, including people from the Latin@ and Middle Eastern communities, to discuss gentrification, immigration, and criminalization. Those of us who spent the night in tents, cars, or staying up all night were awakened before dawn to the swarm of media angling to get their morning story.
The new policy takes into account the nature and date of each applicant’s convictions, and a three-member panel will review someone’s entire circumstances only when necessary. In such a highly impacted city, this affects tens of thousands of families. We pushed for additional amendments to the policy, pointing out that there should be one HANO-controlled board, the policy should explicitly allow people to keep their Section 8 voucher while having additional family members reviewed, creating stronger data reporting, and inserting mandatory language to control the private developers. For the most part, we got what we fought for.
Prior to the roughly 25 people testifying in support of the strongest policy we can get, the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance presented HANO with a 10 year plan for the city. The plan’s thick shiny book was presented to each board member (including myself, as I contributed a small part regarding vast housing discrimination against our highly-criminalized New Orleans residents). The plan calls for passage of the HANO policy, among many other housing objectives, as this issue is now squarely on the front burner. It was a short but perfect introduction to the “strict” three-minute limit testimonies we were all prepared to share.
People with criminal records will finally be able to re-join their families’ leases at public housing sites. Section 8 voucher recipients, who make up most of the city’s assisted housing, can add family members with criminal convictions to their HANO voucher. The private landlords and developers who contract with HANO are now on the spot, as HANO board chairman Greg Bernal basically said they should implement the policy within thirty days or prepare for a fight. The policy calls on them to provide a “legal justification” why they are not implementing the screening procedures. Those who decline may end up finding activists’ tents on their own front lawns.
This four-year battle for a fair policy showcased who is affirmatively furthering fair housing in New Orleans. I never once heard from nor saw a staffer from the Office of Housing and Urban Development. Although HUD is a member of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, publicly stated how people with records are not automatically denied public housing, and issued a public memo reminding public housing authorities that arrest records alone are not evidence of wrongdoing… they did nothing “affirmative” in this process. In fact, HANO is submitting this policy for approval to HUD. Considering the public nature of this struggle, and our attempts to engage HUD’s national support, it is incomprehensible to believe they were not monitoring the situation. Acting “affirmatively” means to positively pick a side, and to “further” fair housing is to make it more fair than the status quo.
Criminal convictions have been used as a proxy for race for decades. And until predominantly White college campuses, ground zero for drug use, are policed as heavily as predominantly non-White public housing- a criminal conviction lacks fundamental fairness. Urban high schools, where there are more police than counselors, are policed more heavily than college campuses; and this is all a choice of resources.
We choose to have a homelessness subsidy in the form of cages. We choose to fund mental health, addiction services, and unemployment with the same thing: cages. We can’t pretend that we lack the funds for proper solutions to our problems.
Research shows that people with convictions who have stable housing are much less likely to be re-arrested. This stability provides an opportunity to work on other challenges in our lives, like finding work and raising our kids, and not be living desperately from pillar to post. HANO finally gets it, but our entire city must create a revolutionary budget. Because, while HANO may require new applicants, regardless of their history, to wait 10 years to access affordable housing, Orleans Parish Prison will make you wait about 10 minutes.
Public officials mentioning rehabilitation, recidivism or reentry need to be reminded of specific legal barriers encountered by people convicted of crimes, regardless of severity. Officials need to publicly explain why they will not remove the barriers, such as 389 different employment restrictions in Louisiana, and support successful recovery from a criminal conviction. Whereas most of these restrictions came out of the Drug War, and most disproportionately impact communities of Color, public officials should have two generations of data showing how these restrictions have built a stronger and healthier New Orleans… or admit they have been a total failure.
New Orleans is our home too, and we are all trying to find ways to make it better. In 2013, VOTE released a comprehensive report, “Communities, Evictions, and Criminal Convictions,” in an attempt to kickstart this conversation and move this initial policy piece impacting 80 million Americans, and their families.
Our report may be just a bunch of words, along with our press releases, blog posts, model policies, and flyers…yet behind those words is the struggle of people simply trying to live. None of those people were more powerful than a man we met at the vigil. He was homeless. We ate together, watched a film, and shared in the story circle. When he testified before the board, and tried explaining his hardship, he couldn’t get his own bunch of words out. The tears he shed spoke volumes, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed how someone stopped his three-minute clock to give him time to regain composure. He never did, but he didn’t need to. His very presence spoke the truth.
We look forward to other cities taking the lead of New Orleans, until the time when the leadership of HUD can bear witness to the truth we live day after day. It is a federal program, and is subject to one sweeping federal solution.