This week, VOTE and allies filled the House Governmental Affairs Committee to weigh in on four bills that impact people with criminal records. Considering that Louisiana leads the nation on percentage of its people who have criminal records, such laws can impact entire families and communities. Unfortunately, the majority of the Committee backpedaled from their positions of a year ago, and now appear staunchly against full citizenship for people convicted of crimes.
Is disenfranchisement a punishment?
“What crimes are we talking about,” asked Rep. John Schroder from St. Tammany. He seemed very interested in determining who, in his opinion, were worthy of having voting rights following a conviction. Such an approach echoes the zeitgeist that developed collateral punishments across every phase of people’s lives. The spirit of ‘worthiness’ is how people with convictions have been denied education, housing, jobs, voting and volunteer opportunities for decades.
There are hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people in every parish under community supervision, to which Rep. Schroder would not want to “soften punishment.” Unfortunately, several legislators appeared to have no desire to encourage successful patterns of behavior while on probation or parole.
The committee appeared ready to vote against HB229, Rep. Pat Smith’s bill that would allow people to vote who are still on community supervision after five years. Rep. Smith voluntarily withdrew the bill to make amendments that strengthen and simplify its purpose.
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” Russell Darrensberg, a VOTE member, testified, “and if he repents, forgive him. Judge not, and you will not be judged. Condemn not, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Watch the full video of the hearing.
The Committee keeps the ”voting rights”question away from voters
In 1974, the People of Louisiana voted for a constitution that did not bar people under community supervision. The constitution they ratified instead allowed the legislature to suspend voting rights for people who are “under order of imprisonment.” That phrase, however, was not defined. A few years later, the legislature decided to suspend those voting rights, and to define “under order of imprisonment” to include people under community supervision. This definition ultimately changed the constitution without being brought to the people.
Our other voting rights bill, HB235, would create a ballot question for the people, forty years after it should have been asked. The proposed amendment was struck down by the committee 5-2. Just like HB229, over 20 cards were in support of the bill, with none opposed. Nobody has spoken out against voting rights, except members of the Committee..
When Rep. Barry Ivey asked Rep. Denise Marcelle (sponsor of HB235) if she also supported sending HB351 (another ballot initiative) to the people, Rep. Marcelle replied:
“I believe that it’s always democracy when it goes to the people. I believe in the people of this state, and I believe they have the ability to weigh those positions.”
To which Rep. Ivey replied “I appreciate your consistency.” Such consistency would not be found by him or four of his colleagues.
Reps. Robert Shadoin, Barry Ivey, Greg Miller, Stephen Pugh, and Michael Dannahay voted against HB235, and to prevent democracy from running its course. Reps. Sam Jenkins and Jimmy Harris voted in favor of letting the people of Louisiana decide on voting rights.
Committee unanimously votes for other amendment on the ballot
In a move that can only be deemed hypocritical, the Committee then voted 7-0 in favor of passing Rep. Miller’s HB351, creating a 15 year waiting period to hold office, following completion of a sentence. The dialogue on this bill spoke highly of “trusting the people,” and yet never once in forty years trusting the people to vote on voting rights.
Ironically, if the Committee really trusted the people of Louisiana, they would trust that no unworthy candidate would be elected to office, regardless of how distant their criminal history. They would not need this bill to protect them.
When Rep. Walt Leger entered the hearing, so the Committee could establish a quorum, he challenged the justification of a 15 year ban, which he views as an additional penalty after someone has served their time and paid their debt.
“It’s not to punish convicted felons, it’s to establish trust in government,” claimed Rep. Miller. To that, Leger, noted that the legislators have a 30% approval rating. He also quickly noted the hypocrisy of denying the voting rights question from the people.
“Right now convicted felons can run for government. They can run for our seats, “Miller said. And perhaps that is proper, in the nation’s conviction capital.
The Committee approves streamlining voting rights restoration
The committee also voted favorably on HB168, which would streamline the process for people to get their voting rights back following a conviction. The current law is unclear on how to register to vote upon completion of a sentence. Most Registrars require a person to bring in official paperwork proving they are not on probation or parole. Although the Department of Corrections currently transmits a monthly report to the Secretary of State listing all the people who are eligible to have their voting rights suspended (due to prison or probation), the DOC does not transmit who has completed their sentence. HB168 would change that, make it simple, and electronically transmit the completion of sentence data.
Contact your representative in the House and ask them to vote yes on HB168.
Keep up with criminal justice bills, with VOTE’s Bill Tracker
Voting RIghts Bills to be heard on wednesday; Over 500 demonstrate at the capitol; and this week's legislative preview
Last week, over 500 people showed up at Louisiana’s State Capitol to call for drastic criminal justice reforms. VOTE filled a bus from New Orleans and united with members of Louisianans for Prison Alternatives (LPA) from across the state. A bipartisan group of legislators are prepared to pass historic legislative reforms. It remains to be seen, however, if they are so watered down as to not budge Louisiana from the national incarceration leader.
Sign our petition to support the Justice Reinvestment work in Louisiana!
Last week we spoke out on needed reforms to the juvenile life without parole bill (SB146), and opposed several bills that create redundant penalties on serious charges, such as a possible enhancement on 198 years for a pattern of robberies (HB301). THe desire to show “tough on crime” chops has not evaporated with the spirit of criminal justice reform.
It was also disappointing to read the amendments to HB615, taking out the provision supported by VOTE (to expand rehabilitative programming to all incarcerated people). Without that, the only remaining piece is allowing the parole board to extend a release date 9 months in order for programming to be completed.
This week, the legislature is hearing many important on Tuesday and Wednesday:
10 ways you can help!
Contact Robert Goodman, VOTE’s statewide organizer, if you would like to testify regarding a certain bill, or would like to be part of a rideshare: Robert@vote-nola.org
In today's two-hour hearing, the Senate Judiciary C Committee heard from over a dozen people in support of a bill to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision. The bill proposes to create parole eligibility at 30 years for boys and girls convicted of murder in Louisiana. Watch the full hearing here.
And then Norris Henderson of VOTE testified in opposition:
Be sure to watch at the 13:30 mark, when Norris weighs in on the very important topic of crime survivors.
Read VOTE's written testimony here.
Amendments are expected to be proposed on the floor of the Senate.
Contact your state senator now, and call for a meaningful opportunity for release.
It is widely known that Louisiana is the most incarcerated state in the world. This means massive numbers of families and communities have members struggling with a lifetime punishment. Fortunately, we are in an era of reform and the work of a statewide Justice Reinvestment Task Force is now into the legislative session. From now until June 16th, VOTE will be monitoring and weighing in on 31 separate pieces of legislation.
We categorize them in four areas: Voting Rights & Democracy; Sentencing, Parole & Probation Reforms; Reentry & Life with a Criminal Record; Decriminalization.
Join our newsletter to get updates each week, and check back to take action.
See VOTE's Bill Tracker web page, for updates on hearing dates, locations, and results.
Voting Rights & Democracy:
HB235 would create a question on the Nov. 2018 ballot, asking to change the state constitution language allowing suspension of voting rights for “incarcerated” people. The current phrase, “under order of imprisonment,” creates all the confusion about people living under community supervision and why VOTE filed VOTE v. Louisiana. This proposal needs two-thirds of both the House and Senate to get on the ballot. We are strongly in favor of this moving forward to let the democratic process work and let the people decide.
HB168 simply requires the Dept. of Corrections to report to the Secretary of State when someone is released from supervision. This way the Secretary can automatically restore voting rights without requiring a person to obtain official paperwork from one state agency merely to submit it to another state agency. This bill is in the House Government Affairs.
HB228 would stop “prison based gerrymandering,” i.e. counting people as residents of the prison they are held inside. This would stem political power from flowing to legislative districts with prisons in them. Most importantly, it would stop the perverse relationship of politicians advocating directly against the interests of people in prison, who have no power to decide their representative.
HB229 would reduce the time people have their voting rights suspended. This proposal will suspend them for five years since the time released from incarceration. People successfully integrated into the community, who are still on (most likely) parole or probation, will be able to vote. This compromise is not the universal voting rights sought by VOTE, and others, but it is a significant step.
VOTE OPPOSES HB256 would propose a Nov. 2018 ballot initiative for constitutional amendment that places a 15-year bar on people running for office, or being appointed to office, after the end of their felony sentence (and a 5-year bar after a misdemeanor). This is inherently anti-democracy, as it would keep people from electing the leaders of their choice.
Sentencing, Parole, and Probation Reforms:
SB220 would create a comprehensive and sensible class system for felony crimes. This is a no-brainer for anyone working in the system, no matter how they feel about incarceration. It would amend some thresholds for drug and property crimes to make them more rational.
HB316 would increase time off for good behavior (“Good Time”), and be retroactive for people convicted of lesser crimes. This is a significant step, part of an overall reform movement, but is not far enough. Retroactivity should apply to people serving the longest sentences. Just as lesser crimes generate sentences too long, so do more serious crimes.
SB139 would place a 3-year cap on probation, allow Good Time credit while on community supervision, and expand eligibility to incarceration alternatives. This should alleviate some burden on people who have proven their success. It does not support people in the early portions of their term (when times are toughest), but it will create some incentive. Perhaps most importantly, it allows the supervisor to punish someone for small violations without incarceration. Once that decision is made, people tend to lose any job, housing or possessions they might have accumulated.
HB249 would levy fines and fees upon someone based on their ability to pay. For decades, lawmakers have created one more fee on top of the last, to the point where people’s lives resemble something out of the 19th century. “Ability to Pay” cannot be based on one’s lifetime possibility of ever having a decent job. The pressure of collection, and limitations on normal life (such as drivers licenses) is weighted net placed on poor communities that must be lifted. The Warrant Clinic at VOTE last month was a jubilee, where approximately $2 million of debts were forgiven for hundreds of people. These people were never going to have the money to pay, and yet the courts were never goig to stop issuing warrants and demands.
HB101 and SB 142 would eliminate the death penalty, the most cruel and inhumane punishment. History has shown that many innocent people have been on death row, and some have been executed. The process is costly in every way.
SB221 would amend the Habitual Offender law so low level crimes can’t be used after five years. Too many people are threatened into lengthy sentences by this law, merely due to a series of petty offenses (including offenses they may not have actually done).
SB146 would reduce the cleansing period of old convictions (from 10 years down to 5) regarding the Habitual Offender sentence enhancement. This would NOT apply to crimes of violence (R.S. 14:2(B)) or sex offenses (15:541). This is yet another example of how the already longer punishment for more serious crimes turns into longer secondary punishments after that sentence ends. The other interesting piece of this bill is it allows a judge to consider a sentence “excessive” and provide that a person who receives “Life” under the Habitual Offender statute may be parole eligible after 35 years. Considering that most people facing such a Life sentence will be over 30 years old, this is creating another form of Geriatric Parole. In such a case, a person has already served time on each of the previous convictions, is receiving time on the new conviction, and to add 35 years without parole as an enhancement is not the sort of “reform” that will get Louisiana out from the title of America’s Most Incarcerated.
VOTE OPPOSES SB16 and HB45 both address the Juvenile Life Without Parole issue. Although slightly different, both bills would (1) treat children’s sentences of 1st and 2nd degree murder as the same, with only two options: Life, with or without parole; (2) Parole eligibility begins at 30 years of incarceration. This inhumane option is out of step with the nation, and unconscionable around the world. First, 1st and 2nd degree murder should have different sentence ranges (2nd Degree should allow for a term of years). Second, parole on Life should begin at 15 years for 1st degree and 10 years for 2nd. Because people’s minds are not fully developed until age 25, this would be an ideal time for the parole board to begin their inquiry and conversation with someone sentenced as a child.
VOTE OPPOSES HB50 would mandate every person on work release wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. These costs are typically passed on to the person in custody, who is also providing a large percentage of their paycheck to the jail. Whereas work release is designed not as a state revenue generator, but as a reentry program, it is counterproductive to add such fees. Furthermore, because eligibility for work release is so narrow already, the state should not be making claims of “dangerousness” about the least serious of situations.
Reentry, and Life with a Criminal Record:
HB177 would stop punishing the children of parents who have drug convictions, and end the ban on federal food stamps for people with drug convictions. Other states have learned how counterproductive this optional ban has been, by further preventing people in need from accessing the very limited supports that do exist.
HB519 would expand on VOTE’s 2014 licensing victory, and the 2016 Ban the Box victory, by allowing for full occupational licensing for people with criminal records. Particularly where such people often must be entrepreneurial in spirit, Louisiana benefits by not holding back those pursuing legal upstanding professions.
HB426 would suspend child support payments during incarceration. No child ever benefitted by having a parent massively in debt, particularly on top of the other fines and fees the courts are typically seeking from someone released from prison.
SB153 would increase the state minimum wage to $8/hour, and create a civil remedy against those employers who violate the law. Many people with convictions, including those who are leaving prison, are working at or near minimum wage. These are grown adults, many who are parents, seeking to build towards a sustainable and upstanding career. Meanwhile, they likely face thousands of dollars in fines and fees, while potentially being released with absolutely no personal belongings. Louisiana needs to provide a floor of support for those working the hardest.
HB61 would require police to issue a summons to people, rather than arrest, for misdemeanors and low-level theft (with a few exceptions). This will reduce the jail population on petty charges. Whatever needs to be sorted out can be done while keeping a job, a home, and/or a family as intact as possible.
SB35 would allow medical marijuana patients to be free from arrest. Currently, an arrestee must go to court and make an affirmative defense that they are a medical patient. This is a waste of resources if a patient can show their certification at the point of police contact.
HB81 would make a presumption of non-monetary bail. This may eliminate the number of people in jail charged with less serious crimes, and/or with little to no prior criminal history. This would allow thousands of people to go back to work, prepare their defense, hold on to their small resources, and save municipalities millions of dollars on needless pretrial detention.
HB409 would ensure that people are not charged with “hate crimes” when resisting arrest. The purpose of Hate Crime legislation is to express intolerance for people who target certain people for their ethnic, racial, religious, or gender identity. This has nothing to do with whether someone is allegedly being defiant when arrested for some other charge.
HB413 would fund the public defender positions at the same rate as the assistant district attorneys. For too long, the 6th Amendment Right to effective assistance of counsel has not been fulfilled. Whereas the prosecution receives more attorneys, along with massive investigative support from the police departments, the “presumption of innocence” is closer to a presumption of guilt. Louisiana needs to meet its responsibilities to its people, and/or consider that it may just be charging too many people with too many crimes.
VOTE OPPOSES HB135 would prohibit all “Sanctuary City” policies, and bar municipalities from deciding their own level of immigration enforcement activity. This bill would allow the federal agency (ICE) to dictate local police policy, and will punish a municipality by revoking all state funding. Around the nation, cities in particular have learned that aggressive immigration officials lead to communities avoiding the police when any crime occurs. This reduces public safety. Furthermore, aggressive arrests leads to lengthy and costly detentions that fracture families. This is an economic drain on that family often losing its primary breadwinner; a drain on the surrounding community attempting to absorb who remains; and a drain on the taxpayers funding the profits of federal detention facility owners, holding thousands of people for months and years on end.