It is easy to list the root causes of incarceration, but our society clearly struggles to form the collective will to address them. Poverty leads to poor educational opportunities, hunger, and homelessness. These conditions, in turn, motivate children and young adults to start their own businesses, regardless of their legality. The unresolved trauma from abusive homes, serving in combat, or surviving a hurricane creates sadness, anger and various forms of spiritual damage that often lead to self-medication or erratic behavior. Addiction can be a downward spiral, and the barriers facing formerly incarcerated people make it worse. More often than not, these barriers lock them out of ever rejoining society.
In Baton Rouge, voters have an opportunity on December 8th to address these root causes by Voting “Yes” on the mental health tax proposal. If the ballot question passes, the average homeowner would be taxed $1.50/month to fund a mental health crisis stabilization center. The center would be a small antidote to the state’s billion-dollar prison system.
Many residents and police officers can clearly identify when someone “needs help,” but they have no idea what to do. Just ask the friends and family of Lamar Johnson, who was pulled over for a routine traffic stop in 2015. Soon thereafter, guards at the East Baton Rouge Prison beat him. Within four days he was found dead under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind his 3-year old son.
Many people both in and out of custody, in Baton Rouge and beyond, are seeking treatment. In Johnson’s case, the police officer was compelled to arrest him on an old warrant. The officer told Johnson that “everything happens for a reason, and I believe sincerely in my heart that you’re trying to do right.” Surely, someone in the jail felt similarly about Lamar Johnson, but had nowhere to refer him.
While the proposed treatment facility, known as The Bridge Center, is a step in the right direction, the current proposal is not without concerns. The Center needs transparency and oversight that includes the perspective of impacted community members. Public oversight of our institutions is crucial, especially for vulnerable populations such as those accused of criminal behavior. The Bridge Center’s current board should also do away with its vice chairman, Dr. Raman Singh, who had multiple marks on his record before and during his tenure as state prison medical director, which came to an end due to allegations of sexual harassment.
No single solution will be the magic salve for all that ails us, especially in a city as large as Baton Rouge. On the other hand, we can’t have an effective, multifaceted response to societal issues without putting the first brick down. It is time to stop using jails and prisons as a stow-away for what we think we can’t collectively deal with. It is time to create alternatives, and give our neighbors, police, district attorneys, sheriffs, and judges a chance to actually help our community.
Early Voting is open now through December 1st, from 8am - 6pm at:
Yesterday, Louisiana voters cast their ballots in favor of Amendment 2, passing a law that will require a unanimous jury on all felony convictions. As a result of this historic win, which puts to rest a 138-year-old law, Louisiana will join 48 other states in requiring a unanimous jury.
“This is a huge moment for criminal justice reform in the South,” says VOTE Executive Director Norris Henderson. “From community conversations, to the Legislature, and finally to the ballot, we’ve put all our efforts into passing this law, and I couldn’t be prouder.” After a split 10-2 jury wrongfully found him guilty, Henderson himself spent almost 28 years at Angola State Penitentiary for a crime he did not commit.
Since the summer, Henderson has led the Unanimous Jury Coalition (UJC), an unlikely group of bipartisan supporters of the unanimous jury law. The UJC collectively represents more than 30 organizations, including Innocence Project New Orleans, the Promise of Justice Initiative, and Southern Poverty Law Center. It also includes individuals such as Ed Tarpley, former District Attorney of Grant Parish, and Robert Jones, who was exonerated in 2017 for four separate crimes.
Louisiana currently leads the country in wrongful convictions. More than 40 percent of all of those who have been recently exonerated were mistakenly found guilty by non-unanimous juries. Though today’s victory is one of many steps necessary to achieve total criminal justice reform in the state and nation, it is a big one. The presence of a unanimous jury law will reduce the rate of wrongful convictions statewide, and send a strong message that the time for criminal justice reform is now. Though the UJC will disband now that Election Day has passed, the political energy generated through its work will continue.
"This work is far from over," says Henderson, "especially considering this year we also won voting rights for the majority of Louisiana citizens on probation and parole.”
VOTE, the Power Coalition and other key criminal justice reform organizations are hosting a candidate forum on November 14th, when questions about Act 636, effective March 1st, 2019, will surely be a hot topic. Kyle Ardoin (R) and "Gwen" Collins-Greenup (D) are in a run-off election for Secretary of State, which will be on Dec. 8th. Early Voting begins November 24th.
“Who this new Secretary of State will be, and how they decide to support or obstruct the new law, will have a lot to say about our democracy moving forward," says Henderson.
The forum will be held at 2022 St. Bernard Ave. from 6 - 8pm. To attend, RSVP at: bit.ly/votecanforum.
VOTE is also raising funds to propel this work forward. Our goal is to raise $30,000 in the next 30 days. Please make a donation today--every dollar counts!
While much of our focus has been on encouraging voters to #VoteYeson2 and #VoteNo1, it is also crucial that we highlight the importance of the Secretary of State race. Among the responsibilities that the incoming Secretary of State will be in charge of is the implementation of Act 636, which will restore voting rights to over 40,000 Louisiana citizens. Currently, people must complete their probation or parole sentences before they can regain voting rights. Act 636 changes this in four months, specifically allowing voting rights to people who have been incarceration-free while on probation, and people on parole for over five years. The law goes into effect on March 1, 2019, and its implementation is central to the Secretary of State’s job.
As of now, only two candidates have released statements about how they will follow the law, and how they will ensure that voting rights are protected.
During a candidate forum hosted by Justice and Beyond, Democratic candidate Renee Fontenot Free stated “it is not good enough for me to wait for somebody that’s on probation or parole to want to vote. It’s incumbent upon me to go to DOC and say ‘give me your records, tell me who is going to be eligible to vote…let me reach out to them.’”
“It is not good enough for me to wait for somebody that’s on probation or parole to want to vote. It’s incumbent upon me to go to DOC and say ‘give me your records, tell me who is going to be eligible to vote…let me reach out to them.’”
She is committed to engagement and education that will make all citizens of Louisiana excited to vote, especially people who were merely given probation by the judge and required to be upstanding citizens. Ms. Free worked in two previous Secretary of State administrations and is the only candidate to fill out the Know Your Vote candidate survey that covers this issue.
At the same forum, Democratic candidate Gwen Collins-Greenup expressed her support for Act 636. She emphasized the importance of voter education, noting that many formerly incarcerated people do not know if they can or cannot vote, once they are released. Collins-Greenup believes that it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility to actively educate all citizens, including illiterate and disabled voters. She also believes it is within the Secretary of State’s duties to work with the Department of Corrections (DOC) and various local organizations to register people to vote under Act 636.
The acting Secretary of State, Republican Kyle Ardoin, testified about the challenges of implementing Act 636 before it was signed into law, when it was still House Bill 265, as he had about variations on the bill during previous legislative sessions. However, now that the restoration of voting rights outlined in Act 636 is mandated, he said it will not be a problem for the Secretary of State to work with the DOC on implementation. There are no indications as to whether he has done any preparation for February or March. If people are going to have voting rights on March 1st, they will need to have a registration system similar to 17-year-olds who turn 18 on Election Day.
Republican candidates Julie Stokes and Rick Edmonds both voted against HB 265, while they were state legislators. Neither candidate has released a statement or opinion about how they plan to implement the new law, if elected. The window to adjust the registration system, train the parish officials, create a better data exchange with the Department of Corrections, outreach eligible voters, and print new materials will close in fast after the election, which certainly will go to a December 8th run-off.
The window to adjust the registration system, train the parish officials, create a better data exchange with the Department of Corrections, outreach eligible voters, and print new materials will close in fast after the election, which certainly will go to a December 8th run-off.
The remaining four candidates, Republicans Heather Cloud, A.G. Crowe, and Thomas J. Kennedy, and Independent Matthew Paul Moreau have also not publicly spoken about their plans to implement Act 636.
In the next few days leading up to the primary election on November 6, and during the time between the primary and the runoff, it is crucial to pay attention to what these candidates are saying about their plans to implement Act 636. It is a very important law that will positively impact thousands of people throughout Louisiana. It is our top priority that we elect a Secretary of State who will ensure that each and every eligible individual is able to easily and quickly regain their voting rights.
Stay tuned for a candidate forum, November 14th, following the primary.
Four members of VOTE’s staff, all working hard to encourage civic engagement of people throughout the community, will continue to be denied the right to vote along with thousands of members and constituents living on probation or parole across the state. The named plaintiffs include college graduates, veterans and faith leaders. The good news, however, is that Act 636, effective March 1st 2019, will solve half the problem, and even the NFL is hailing VOTE’s work to create voting rights and equal opportunities.
One reason the case may have been dismissed is because the legislature changed the laws and, as the Secretary of State wrote in opposition to the writ, Act 636 will end the suspension of voting rights for roughly 40,000 people on probation- unless they commit a probation violation and go to prison. This leaves roughly 30,000 people on parole, barred from voting, as they have been out for less than 5 years.
The Court’s decision is a reminder of the many barriers built and defended to, ironically, keep people from 'doing the right thing.' In a state that struggles to get more than 20% of people to vote, denying participation to so many people contributes to the demise of democracy and legitimacy of elections. For people recovering from a criminal conviction, attempts to assimilate into society can be futile. One might think such hurdles were enacted to prevent crimes, yet most barriers prevent housing, impede education, block employment, and bar voting.
“We weren’t even making a moral argument, which we could have,” says Bruce Reilly, VOTE deputy director, member of the legal team, and himself disenfranchised. “Our case is built on the reality that the voters were played by a bait-and-switch back in 1974. I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that the Court didn’t want to go there. Galileo faced the same problem back in the 16th century, trying to get the court to look into the telescope, to prove the earth rotated around the sun. Instead, they placed him under house arrest.”
This case turned on the interpretation of a phrase, “under order of imprisonment,” where lower courts agreed that the definition (to include people in prison, on parole, and on probation) was correct, despite being crafted several years after the constitution was ratified. Yet the lower courts refused to follow established legal standards to reach their rulings. It is hard to trust the process when the process is ignored. The legal standards call for courts to consider what the voters believed they were voting for, particularly when a word of phrase does not a hold a common everyday plain meaning. Rather than conduct an inquiry, six members of the Louisiana Supreme Court remain silent.
Chief Justice Johnson has been an attorney for 50 years, and a judge for 34 years. While she saw the merits of the case clearly to be on the side of VOTE, it is disappointing that the other justices did not even see the controversy as worthy of consideration. Such a move begs critics to see courts as an extension of political theatre, rather than a place of reasonable minds and rigorous inquiry. The Chief Justice's own research unearthed what may be the origin of the phrase “under order of imprisonment,” which is not a part of the Louisiana criminal code. Back in 1876, when an incarcerated person wanted courts to correct his deficient "order of imprisonment," he filed for “habeas relief” to be released from incarceration. Today, however, an order of imprisonment is equated to the “threat of” imprisonment, which everyone in America actually faces. The path to tyranny is a slippery slope.
Furthermore, even if the denial of a fundamental right were clearly written into law, the legality of it would require a “legitimate state interest” for why this right were being denied, and whether this was the least intrusive way to deny the right. This judicial review serves as a check on legislatures or mob rule run amok, and is one of the basic “checks and balances” under American democracy. In this case, the Court did not even want to weigh the matter- thus relegating “voting rights” to a whimsical privilege. Yet as Chief Justice Johnson writes, “There is no legitimate reason for disenfranchising these citizens.”
Although this chapter of the story concludes, VOTE v. Louisiana will be remembered as a lawsuit that united the brilliance of so many people and organizations, all of which contributed to our overall cultural shift. This historic litigation owes special thanks to Professor Bill Quigley (lead counsel), Advancement Project (appellate counsel team, particularly Denise Lieberman and Jennifer Lai-Peterson), League of Women Voters, American Probation and Parole Association, The Sentencing Project, Professors Andrea Armstrong, Davida Finger, and Lawrence Powell, and NAACP-Legal Defense Fund. Additional thank you to those attorneys who joined the fight before there was even a light at the end of the tunnel: Ron Wilson, Rob McDuff, Anna Lellelid, Vanessa Carroll, Ilona Prieto, Alexis Erkert, Patrick Murphree, and Megan French-Marcelin.
This case would be nothing without the courage of our plaintiffs: Kenneth “Biggy” Johnston, Bruce Reilly, Checo Yancy, Randy Tucker, Bill Vo, Huy Tran, and Ashanti Witherspoon. VOTE v. Louisiana was a model of 'movement-based lawyering' just that, a testament to self-empowerment, and an example of unity between jailhouse lawyers and allies. Regarding future legal filings... join VOTE's email list and stay tuned!
“No Surrender, No Retreat!” - Checo Yancy