We know that the people closest to the problems of mass incarceration are the ones who will transform the criminal justice system in the most lasting, humane ways. VOTE is made up of such people, and this legislative session we have been working to bridge the gap between the current reality of an unjust system and our vision for a better future. We have had successes and setbacks, all the while building people power and momentum. Every day since April 8, VOTE staff and members have been at the State Capitol testifying on bills that support our mission to protect the rights of currently and formerly incarcerated people (FIP), and fighting against the ones that don’t. As people who have spent time behind bars ourselves or are supporting loved ones who are still locked up, we know we deserve so much better. As our mission says, we deserve the FULL restoration of our civil and human rights. This session, we’re focused on the following three topics, though the list of what we we’re fighting for is much longer, and we won’t quit until each item is checked off.
We deserve sentences that match the crime
One of the drivers of mass incarceration is overly-punitive sentences that result from the habitual offender law. More commonly known as the "three strikes” law, this allows judges to lengthen sentences for people who have been convicted of more than one crime, even if their first and second crimes were non-violent and minor in nature. This type of unnecessarily harsh sentencing is the primary reason that our jails and prisons are overcrowded with people who have non-violent convictions, and it has to end.
Often, the factors that lead people to commit crimes are systemic and deeply rooted, such as addiction, poverty and mental illness. The three strikes law only focuses on the symptoms of these underlying problems, and punishes the people dealing with them. The majority of people serving time in Louisiana under this law (64%) are in prison for non-violent offenses(1), and they are also disproportionately Black (79%)(2). HB 518 will remove non-violent offenses from the habitual offender law, which would drastically reduce the impact of overly-punitive sentencing. The bill passed the House Committee and is coming up for a vote on the House Floor on Wednesday, May 22! Contact your legislators and tell them to vote YES on HB 518 TODAY! (Reading this after May 22? You can still check the status of the bill here. If it’s moved forward, we still need you to contact your legislators. This applies to all the bills referenced in this post.)
We deserve transparency
Anyone who has been involved with the criminal justice system knows that it is confusing--often intentionally so. There is a lot of fine print, and most people going to court aren’t provided adequate legal counsel. This legislative session, VOTE is pushing to pass HB 351, which will make sure people who are offered a plea deal are made aware of the true impact of their conviction, including how having a criminal record will affect their access to housing, voting, and employment for the rest of their lives. At the bill’s House Committee hearing, it was clear we struck a nerve when Pete Adams of the District Attorneys Association testified that HB 351 would “slow down the process--it literally would shut down justice,” which is the opposite of true. His words are in keeping with District Attorneys’ common attempts to pressure people into signing away their rights via drive-by sentencing. As an antidote, this bill would provide more awareness to people facing a loss of freedom. As of now, it has been amended to ensure lawyers inform people of all plea offers by the state (which is constitutionally required under Missouri v. Frye). This bill has passed the House and has moved to the Senate Committee. Contact your legislators and tell them to vote YES on HB 351!
The lack of transparency in the trial process doesn’t end with the courts, it extends to bail bond companies as well. Bail bonds companies have been illegally overcharging people for bail for years in New Orleans. The Commissioner of Insurance has issued a directive ordering companies to repay the $6 million they’ve stolen from New Orleans families over the last 14 years(3). The corruption in the bail bonds industry most directly impacts women--the mothers, grandmothers, wives and friends of incarcerated men--who are also often the primary caretakers when their loved ones are incarcerated. VOTE opposes SB 108. The bill would make the order for bail bond companies to repay customers void. It is coming to a vote on the House Floor on Wednesday, May 22. Contact your legislators to oppose SB 108 today!
We deserve to participate in civic duties
The right to participate in civic duties such as voting has historically been denied to certain United States citizens, including formerly incarcerated people. As FIP, we know that voting is a pillar of our nation’s democracy, and one of the most powerful tools for change. Our huge legislative win from last year--which expanded voting rights to 40,000 formerly incarcerated people under Act 636--was already under attack this session. HB 527 tried to take away the right to vote for people specifically convicted of sex crimes. This bill sought to divide our community of FIP based on our specific convictions, and roll back the important progress we made last year. VOTE responded by mobilizing our base. We descended upon the Capitol in mass to show our opposition. On May 1, we filled the House Committee on Government Affairs room with 100 blue shirts, and watched as our leaders Norris Henderson and Checo Yancy testified against the bill alongside our ally, Rep. Pat Smith (D-District 67). We succeeded in defeating the bill in the committee, a testament to the strength in our numbers and in our stories.
In an effort to build on last year’s win, VOTE also pushed HB 65 this year, which would have restored the right to serve on a jury to people with a felony conviction who have not been incarcerated for at least five years. Like voting, the right to serve on a jury is one of the most fundamental rights guaranteed in both the Louisiana and United States Constitutions. Excluding FIP from jury service further disenfranchises an already stigmatized population. In Louisiana, more than 100,000 people are currently serving a felony sentence, while hundreds of thousands more have completed their punishments yet are barred for life from serving on juries(4). Though they are excluded from this civic duty, it is precisely this type of community engagement that reduces recidivism and promotes successful reentry. Research also shows that the more diverse a jury is, the more fair it will be(5). Allowing FIP to serve on a jury would therefore benefit all parties involved. On May 1, HB 65 passed the House Committee on Criminal Justice but lost by a 26-62 vote two weeks later on the House Floor. Despite this setback, we will keep fighting to restore the basic civil rights that should be guaranteed to every citizen of this country.
We know that we have to keep fighting for ourselves, because no one is looking out to protect our wins as much as we are. Our community deserves fair sentences, transparency, and participation in civic duties, among other rights, and we will keep working every day to secure them. In two weeks, we’ll dive even deeper into additional rights that we’re fighting for this legislative session, and how they connect with other states around the country who are doing parallel work. Together, we will all build the justice system we deserve.
(2) Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Briefing Book, June 30, 2018. https://www.doc.la.gov/media/1/Briefing%20Book/July%2018/july.2018.bb.pdf
(5) Sommers, S.R. (2006). On racial diversity and group decision-making: Identifying multiple effects of racial composition on jury deliberations, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 90, 597.
Depending on your mission, the jungle can be a passing experience or a brutal graveyard. My senior year I was back at Ellender Memorial High School after an expedited exit from California. My football team had a game against Amite High, who would then go on to win the state championship in 3A. (They should have, because nobody on the team was under 25.)
Standing on the field with these grown men, every player had full mustaches and Rick Ross beards. Plus, these was some country boys--I'm talking about cornbread-fed. So it was no surprise when we found ourselves down 35 to 0 in the 4th quarter and the offense could hardly move the ball. I caught a 15-yard pass, but then we ended up losing 15 or 20 yards during the next play. Defense played okay, but they were definitely overpowered. In other words, I'm surprised the game wasn't 70 to nothing. For some reason, though, I still felt like my team wasn't giving it their all.
I walked up and down the sidelines, looking at all the so-called stars of the team, who were all-district, all-regional, and, on the defensive end, all-stater players. It was a Thursday night, so I asked how they were going to hold their heads up at school tomorrow after they’d said we were coming up here to beat these people at the pep rally. They told me I was getting beat ,too. I agreed, but I said the only difference was that I could at least say I had scored a touchdown. They laughed at me. Our offense crossed the 50-yard line once, and on the next offensive drive, I took the punt. I headed for the touchdown, but before I could make it to the sidelines, somebody hit me so hard I flew almost all the way to the track. Instead of being intimidated, I was extremely excited because this was the longest play of the game. I must have sparked something in my offense, because my running backs were actually hitting the hole. I caught another 15-yard post, and we were close to the end zone. Coach called my play--a waggle--and I took the post corner.
When I stepped into my post, the cornerback was all over me. I had caught 3 posts on him in the game, and he wasn't going to let me catch another one. But this wasn't a post, so when he and the free safety jumped the post, Kenny my quarterback threw the corner. When they looked, I wasn't in the post but racing to the corner. When I caught the ball, I was in the end zone. I ran out the back of the end zone and did my dance. My running back wasn't going to let me shine on my own, so he ran a 60-yarder. If we had had another quarter, we could have won, but instead we lost the game 35-14, though we did manage to that show everybody that we had a team to reckon with.
That year we were ranked 6th in 4A in the state. I had one goal, and that was to do my dance. I could only do my dance, however, if I crossed the goal line with the football.
We were undefeated going into the game against our Catholic rivals across town. They were ranked in 3A that year and threatened to give us our first loss. The score kept going back and forth, and in the 4th quarter we were tied. Kenny threw me a post, but the free safety read it and intercepted the ball in the end zone. The cornerback flipped me in the air, and I looked up to see the ball going the other way.
As I sat in the end zone, I heard somebody calling my name. When I looked up, another rival was standing outside the fence yelling, “don't worry, you'll beat 'em next year,” and then said, “my bad, this your last year.” I got off the ground and watched as the defense let them score. For some strange reason they went for two, and the defense stopped them, which meant we got the ball back. I tell everybody we would not lose this game, and we started to move the ball. The running back caught a few passes out the back field, yet time was running out and it was the fourth down. If they stopped us, we would get our first loss.
Coach called the waggle play, and I knew it was now or never.
I ran my route and the free safety read the play again. He jumped the post route, yet when he did the cornerback went to hit me, and I moved into the corner. Kenny really threw the ball. Actually, he overthrew it, and all I could think about was running all the way to the line and just stretching for the ball. As my tip toes stopped a corner of the end zone, I pulled the ball in. When I looked up the same rival was still there. I showed him the ball before I started to do my dance. Our kicker sealed the deal, and we won.
I was player of the week in that game, gave my first newspaper interview, and adopted the nickname Prime Time, which I did not like at first because it was already somebody else's name, but then it grew on me.
Never think in the jungle that just because all is clear ahead that everything is alright. Cliffs, crags, or bluffs could suddenly appear and you could plummet to your death. This sudden drop came when the coach from the school I should’ve been attending called my coach and told him that I was living out of district. He said that if I transferred schools and came to play for him, he wouldn't report me. My coach ask if I wanted to fight this, and I told him to scrap up. We fought and we lost. Since my grandmother had been my guardian, when I transferred schools I used my auntie's address. I lost my eligibility, and we ended up forfeiting all of our wins, but the team had still won enough games in the district to make the playoffs.
The playoff game was against the Capitol team from Baton Rouge. My replacement dropped too many passes and a game-winning touchdown. Everybody looked at me when he dropped that pass like it was my fault. In a way it was because if I would have played, we would have won and the game wouldn't have been so close. This is what it’s like to choose to live and die in LA-- not the city of angels, but the state where the oppressive is impressive. You may be able to erase my stats from a book, but you can't erase my action on films, and colleges still wanted the fast little kid that did his dance.
This is the sixth contribution to our new, bi-weekly blog post featuring creative content made by currently or formerly incarcerated people! 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! This is the last part in a multi-part story written by Eyba Brown, who is currently incarcerated at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center.
Yesterday, we rose early. We got into buses, vans and cars across the state--in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Lafayette, Shreveport--and drove straight to the State Capitol. Hundreds of us gathered for Louisianans for Prison Alternatives (LPA)’s Third Annual Lobby Day. We learned about LPA’s legislative session priorities, met our representatives, filled out support and opposition cards for bills with upcoming hearings, and listened to the stories of others who have built resilience and a passion for change in the face of systemic oppression. As a sea of blue shirts, we made a point to name the building for what it is--our house.
“We have buku blue shirts in here, which means I’ve got a team behind me,” said VOTE member Rena Vereen, who, despite being nervous, testified at the Capitol for the first time last week. “What do I have to be scared of? We can change the law. We’ve got to do our part.” Vereen’s brother is currently incarcerated. She attended Lobby Day with her father, and the two of them, like so many of us, are committed to fighting until he’s free.
After Rena, our Voters Organized to Educate Director Checo Yancy, and others got us fired up and ready to go, we ascended to the steps of the Capitol. There, we listened to speakers from LPA, Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and, of course, VOTE. Our Executive Director Norris Henderson reminded the crowd of our many victories in 2018--especially turning out 1.5 million voters to end non-unanimous juries in Louisiana last November. “Don’t tell us about what we can’t do, or what we’re not capable of,” Norris said. “You either ride with us or you collide with us, and I don’t think anybody wants to collide with the 1.5 million voters we're waking up.”
Next, we went inside the Capitol and got to work. We met our legislators and submitted comment cards to urging them to support important criminal justice reform bills and oppose others that are trying to roll back our progress. We sat in on a House hearing and, later, a Senate hearing. Our day ended with being recognized by members of the House and Senate for showing up--not just on Lobby Day, but steadily throughout the legislative session--to fight for our rights.
Some of the bills we fought for yesterday came up for a vote in House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice today, including:
HB 158 will reduce the number of juveniles going to jail. It passed and is moving to the House Floor!
HB 518 will exclude non-violent offenses from the Habitual Offender Law, and drastically lower the law’s harmful impact. It passed and is moving to the House Floor!
HB 275 allows incarcerated people to fight for their cases by requesting DNA testing post-conviction. It passed and is moving to the House Floor!
HB 226 permits judges to bring expert testimony (as opposed to less-effective eyewitness testimony) to a trial. It passed and is moving to the House Floor
The votes on these four bills are an example of what goes on at the Capitol everyday. If you missed us yesterday, there will be plenty of opportunities to get involved throughout the legislative session, including testifying in front of elected officials like Rena did.
Last Saturday, VOTE’s Housing Justice Organizer Kiana Calloway voted for the first time. This was a direct result of the major voting rights victory we won during last year’s legislative session. In other words, our voices matter.
“We need our legislators to continue embracing the values of building us up, and not tearing us down,” Kiana shared in front of an eager crowd on Monday. “Today, we stand as residents in every parish. We stand as voters in every district...When we fight, we win. This is only the beginning.”