Thanks to the help of many VOTE members and allies, Senate Bill 243, which requires unanimous verdicts in felony cases, passed through the Louisiana Legislature this past session. Half the battle has been won, but now the decision to repeal this Jim Crow-era law is in the hands of Louisiana voters.
On November 6, 2018, the election ballot will ask people, “Do you support an amendment to require a unanimous jury verdict in all noncapital felony cases for offenses that are committed on or after January 1, 2019?” And we need them to vote YES.
Louisiana is one of two states that allow non-unanimous verdicts in jury trials and is the only state to allow non-unanimous verdicts (requiring only 10 out of 12 votes) for murder cases and crimes carrying sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law was put in place in 1880 as an effort to minimize the influence Black jurors could have in criminal trials. The silencing that results from this non-unanimous jury system has resulted in over-incarceration, reduced deliberation and has dramatically increased wrongful convictions. It has also created rightful community distrust of the justice system, which directly undermines why the jury system exists in the first place. In theory, juries bring the voices of the community to the table and allow people to feel confident about an ethical justice system. A non-unanimous jury system is antithetical to this.
The legislative win was due in large part to the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (LACDL) and the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI), specifically Ben Cohen and Calvin Duncan. People like Duncan, whose expertise developed while he was in prison, have been essential to the efforts to litigate, legislate and educate Louisiana on this issue.
The constitutional amendment has many additional supporters. One, the ACLU of Louisiana, calls the current law “archaic and racist.” The Black Caucus of Louisiana has co-sponsored it. Representative Sherman Mack, who admits to supporting legislation on behalf of prosecutors, supports the amendment, expressing that it’s time for Louisiana , “to do the right thing” and join the rest of the United States. Representative Ted James (D - East Baton Rouge) stated that this amendment will give “the people of Louisiana have the opportunity to right a 138-year wrong.” Governor Edwards also recently expressed his support and promised to encourage Louisiana to vote in favor of the amendment this fall. Even the Louisiana GOP has endorsed the amendment, supporting this change.
The people of Louisiana have the opportunity to right a 138-year wrong -- Rep. Ted James
Despite much bipartisan support, the amendment also has opponents. Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier is not in favor. During the legislative session he said “it is what it is,” in response to the fact that this law is a remnant of slavery. His quote can now be found on billboards throughout the Lake Charles area.
While DeRosier is one of numerous district attorneys throughout the state that tried to put an end to the bill, he Louisiana District Attorneys Association ultimately went from an oppositional to neutral position prior to its passage. Senator J.P. Morrell, who sponsored Senate Bill 243, believes that the likelihood of the amendment passing in November depends on the “continuation of the coalition that backed the change during the session” to educate voters and remain united. “Very seldom do we have something of this magnitude, this historic, that has enjoyed such bipartisan support,” he said during the session.
This ballot initiative is an opportunity to dramatically advance criminal justice reform in Louisiana. Combined with a relaxation on felon disenfranchisement (effective March 1st, 2019), the non-unanimous jury issue can help alter the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in the South and nationwide. Yet this win won’t be possible simply with the passage of time. The time to organize, educate, and mobilize an ever-growing group of people directly impacted by the criminal justice system is now.
We must strengthen our collective voice claiming our rightful space in society, and craft a criminal justice system that actually creates public safety and healthy communities.
As November quickly approaches, it is essential that we’re hitting the ground running, which means tireless door knocking, canvassing, and spreading the word about this ballot initiative. Get involved by: 1. Registering to vote and 2. Volunteering to help us pass the unanimous jury law!
How is your heart today? More than 100 people coming together for the first time sat quietly in the room, meditating on this question. How is your heart today, the facilitator repeated before asking participants to get in pairs and share their responses. A moment later, incarcerated people doing time at Angola State Penitentiary and individuals on the outside who had come to the prison for the second Day of Compassion were sharing what was on their hearts. For one rare day, people who generally spend their days locked in a cage--sometimes for up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement--sat side by side with people who had never been inside prison walls. Together they told their stories and co-birthed ideas and visions for a better criminal justice system.
The Day of Compassion is the brainchild of Lara Naughton, a white woman who experienced a kidnapping and sexual assault while traveling. She now uses writing, acting and mindfulness as tools to heal from her experiences, and teaches these tools to others. In her writing, she names compassion as the most powerful force that enabled her survival. Over time, she forged a relationship with the Department of Corrections, and that ultimately allowed her to create an 8-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). The training, which explores how to create a culture of compassion, is available to currently incarcerated people, and culminates in the special day that brings together incarcerated and non-incarcerated people.
While only incarcerated people who had gone through the CCT program attended yesterday’s event, the whole day was videotaped for the almost 6,000 people held at Angola prison to watch later. Participants broke bread together and discussed one of three topics: victim-offender intentional dialogue, sentencing reform or community reentry.
“As a victim, what would you want from me?” asked Keith, a CCT participant who is currently serving a life sentence for murdering someone when he was 18 years old. Respondents talked about the importance of a sincere apology, a commitment to change patterns and behavior, and an opportunity to truly understand why he did what he did. Keith talked about his frustration with the justice system strongly encouraging victims of crime to be punitive, even if they don’t want that themselves. He has a desire to talk to the family of the person he killed more than 20 years ago, but in Louisiana, it is illegal for the offender to reach out to the victim.
“I have a parole hearing in September,” he said. “Even though I feel completely rehabilitated and other people in here [the prison] know that, I can’t show that to the victim’s family.” Victims are allowed to come to offenders’ parole hearings, and many times their opinion strongly informs the ultimate decision, regardless of how much and in what ways offenders may have changed.
Several VOTE staff members--some who have been incarcerated and some who haven’t--were present yesterday.
“The day was a heartwarming and inspiring experience,” says Anna Sacks, VOTE’s Communications Associate. “At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel sad about the other 5,000 incarcerated people who weren’t in the room.” Sacks and other staff members exchanged information with some incarcerated individuals, and have plans to become penpals with them.
While the day is no silver bullet solution to a more compassionate criminal justice system, the experiences and conversations shared will continue to have a profound impact on both sides of prison walls.
Click here to learn more about the Compassion Institute and upcoming events.
Watch the full video of us filing the application for our lawsuit at the Louisiana Supreme Court here!
On Friday, we filed our application to the Louisiana Supreme Court on VOTE v. Louisiana, which seeks to end Louisiana’s unconstitutional disenfranchisement of citizens on probation or parole. With this filing – and with Advancement Project’s national office serving as national counsel – this historic case is officially in the hands of the Louisiana Supreme Court. The application urges the Supreme Court to hear this case due to its serious constitutional implications for tens of thousands of citizens on probation and parole in the state and to affirm the fundamental right to vote for all Louisianans.
“This filing marks one more milestone for VOTE, our members, and everyone resisting against an out-of-control criminal ‘justice’ system,” said Norris Henderson, Executive Director of VOTE. “We envisioned this case while some of us were incarcerated. After organizing, growing, and building power for years, today we affirm our political voice before the Louisiana Supreme Court. The state needs to make good on the promise of the right to vote we have based on the Constitution.”
“The judges seeing this case so far are upholding a law that we know is unconstitutional,” said Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director of VOTE. “The Louisiana Supreme Court is best positioned to correct this, and proclaim once and for all that the Louisiana Constitution guarantees the right to vote, and that voting can only be suspended during, not after, incarceration.”
This historic law is made possible by the historic years-long efforts of hundreds of formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones coming together to urge state representatives to defend democracy.
In a March 2017 ruling granting summary judgment to the state in this case, 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. With a partial dissent, the appeals court sided with the district court, clearing the way for today’s appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
“People should be given second chances, maintain their political voice and the opportunity to choose those who represents them,” said Judith Browne Dianis, Executive Director of Advancement Project’s national office. “Because of organizations like VOTE, we are seeing broad, sweeping criminal justice reform across the country. Still, too often the voting rights of people ensnared by the criminal justice system are left behind. People on probation and parole should have their right to vote restored. Louisiana’s constitution, unlike the Federal Constitution, affirms an explicit fundamental right to vote. The court below failed to give weight to this fundamental right, and that is why we take our case to the Supreme Court today.”
The claim to the right to vote made in VOTE v. Louisiana enjoys overwhelming support from influential voices who have filed amicus briefs in the case. Legal scholars from every law school in Louisiana have expressed their support for the merits of the lawsuit. Historians from Louisiana added incisive historical analysis showing that recognizing the right to vote is long overdue. Importantly, the American Probation and Parole Association, which represents 700 probation and parole officers in Louisiana alone, is strongly in favor of recognizing the right to vote as claimed by VOTE. Whalen Gibbs, a longtime Louisiana public servant, probation officer, and a former assistant secretary with the Louisiana Department of Corrections who oversaw reentry work, publicly expressed his support through an op-ed in the Times-Picayune. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), The Sentencing Project and the Southern Poverty Law Center have supported the case with important racial, historical and legal context that cannot be separated from what this case means to the community.
VOTE secured a key victory just last month via the ratification of Act 636, which restores voting rights sooner to some people on probation and parole. While a significant step forward, the law is also only a partial restoration – tens of thousands of parolees and probationers are estimated to remain disenfranchised even the new law goes into effect next year.
Through VOTE v. Louisiana, VOTE seeks to affirm the right to vote for more than 70,000 people who are not incarcerated, but living under community supervision (i.e. probation and parole) as our neighbors, family members, and co-workers.
Louisiana denies the right to vote to people behind bars. It also bars from voting 40,000 people on probation, along with 30,000 citizens who have returned to their communities on parole. Each year, thousands of people are removed from this list while thousands more take their place, as Louisiana has more police and prisons per capita than anywhere in the nation.
Key legal documents and pleadings available here:
Writ application available here: http://nationalrighttovote.org/vote-lasc-writ/
Last Thursday, Governor John Bel Edwards signed House Bill 265 into law. This historic victory was made possible by the leadership of formerly incarcerated people as well as Representative Patricia Smith (Baton Rouge) and hundreds of supporting families and allies. “This is a win of our lifetime, and also one of many to come,” says Executive Director Norris Henderson, who will now be able to vote. “It wouldn’t have been possible without the voice of those who have been to prison. We know that those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”
The new law will go into effect on March 1, 2019 and is estimated to reach at least 43,000 people--40,000 on probation and 3,000 on parole--throughout the state in the first year. Find out more about the eligibility details below.
Whose voting rights can Louisiana suspend? 110,000 people.
The 1974 Louisiana constitution guarantees all resident citizens, over 18, the right to vote. However, it carves out the option to suspend the right while someone is under an order of imprisonment for a felony conviction. The phrase “under order of imprisonment,” was first defined in 1976, and expanded in 1977. The state may suspend the rights of people in prison, on parole, or on probation for a felony.
Whose voting rights will not be suspended after a criminal conviction?
Whose rights did HB 265 restore?
The operative part of the new law carves out a group of people who will not be impacted by the state’s choice to suspend voting rights. This group is anyone, under order of imprisonment: “who has not been incarcerated pursuant to the order within the last five years.”
The incarceration must be “pursuant” (or after) the order of imprisonment, parole, or probation.
At any given time, roughly 40,000 Louisiana citizens are on probation. All of them left the courthouse, and went home, following the judicial order. None of their voting rights will be suspended until after they are incarcerated, if ever. While many finish their probation terms with no incident, others do not. Upon violation, and sentence to incarceration, they will have their voting rights suspended. Because probation terms are under 5 years, such person will not have that right restored until they complete the probation (which is likely to be under 5 years), and are no longer “under an order.” At that point, all past incarcerations become irrelevant.
People on parole who have been out for five years will be able to vote. The DOC estimates about 3,000 of the roughly 30,000 people currently on parole would have their right un-suspended. The majority of people finish parole in shorter than five years, thus HB 265 would not apply to them. Nearly half of people on parole return to prison for a violation, nearly all of those people do that within the first year of release, under the pressure of finding food, clothing, shelter, a job, and happiness.
Download a 1-pager of the voting eligibility under HB 265.