Thursday is the last day of the 2019 legislative session. We have had many ups and downs, big wins, and small setbacks. Most of all, we have been reminded over and over again that long-term change is a slow process. With patience and perseverance, VOTE staff and members have been at the State Capitol daily for the past two months, fighting for the changes that will build the just future our community demands and deserves.
At VOTE, we know that the people closest to the criminal justice system--those who have experienced all of its injustice--will be the ones to ensure lasting change. House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 109 is a chance for VOTE prove that principle to the legislature. HCR 109 allows VOTE to conduct a study about the level of awareness people facing charges have had regarding the consequences that come with taking a plea deal. We know from experience that many people are not made aware of the true impact of pleading guilty to a conviction, including how having a criminal record will affect their access to housing, voting, and employment for the rest of their lives. As of today, the bill has passed the House and the Senate and is ready to be signed by the Governor. Now VOTE and our partners have the opportunity to collect testimonies from our community and educate the legislature on the issues that directly impact us. We will come back to the 2020 legislative session with the report in hand, ready to continue the fight.
HCR 109 builds off of another bill that we introduced this session--HB 351--which ensures that defense attorneys will communicate all plea offers from the District Attorney to their clients. The bill also passed both chambers and is awaiting the Governor’s signature. This is a step in the right direction, though there's more room for growth.
Like HB 351, HB 518--which in its original form would have removed nonviolent offenses from the habitual offender, or ‘three strikes’ law, and drastically reduce its harmful impact--has been weakened by amendments. The habitual offender law allows judges to lengthen sentences for people who have been convicted of more than one crime, even if their first and second crimes were nonviolent 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 nonviolent convictions. Now (after the amendments), HB 518 will only apply to people who choose probation for their first offense and who went through the burdensome process of getting their record sealed after they served the probation. This choice, usually known as ‘deferred probation’ only applies to certain first-time offenses and is not a common sentence. On top of that, getting a record sealed is not automatic and very few people go through with the process--often deterred by the $1,000 price tag.* HB 518 passed the House and is being heard on the Senate Floor TOMORROW (click here to tell your legislators to vote YES on it). If it passes, this bill will still be a small win for VOTE, and we will have more work to do next legislative session to continue chipping away at the overly-punitive habitual offender law.
HCR 109, HB 315, and HB 518 do not go far enough, but they are undoubtedly moving us in the right direction. Unfortunately, this session has also seen some policy decisions that roll back on our progress. Two crucial criminal justice reform bills were defeated in the House this year--HB 509 and HB 59. HB 59 tried to reform penalties for marijuana possession and HB 509 sought to legalize the drug for recreational use. These bills are important because we know that the War on Drugs has been ineffective at best, and violently disrupted poor communities of color at worst. Last year, marijuana possession alone accounted for 13,000 arrests in Louisiana, and it is no surprise that those arrested were disproportionately Black. These marijuana bills were simply trying to amend the lowest hanging fruit by addressing the arrests that have been proven unnecessary and detrimental to justice.
It is now widely accepted across political lines that overly-punitive sentencing practices such as those mentioned above are a leading cause of mass incarceration in our state and throughout the nation. That means it’s time to make bigger strides in reversing these harmful policies. We demand better from our legislators, and are ready to fight one day longer than our opponents until justice is achieved.
*If you or someone you know has a record that you want sealed, the Justice and Accountability Center and Orleans Public Defenders’ office host a free expungement clinic every fourth Wednesday of the month from 2-5pm at 2601 Tulane Ave. Find more information here.