Local Bishop and movement ally Joe Morris Doss asked members of the Felony Classification Task Force to consider morality and justice in a moving testimony on Friday, January 5.
In honor of the late and great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and this day commemorating his life, VOTE shares the following compelling testimony of Bishop Joe Morris Doss, who, like Dr. King, is a faith leader and freedom fighter. These poignant and truth-telling words were shared before the state-appointed members of the Felony Classification Task Force on Friday, January 5. The Task Force seeks to bring order and clarity to the list of more than 700 crimes considered felonies in Louisiana.
“I wish to make a statement about the fundamental power and purpose of law, one that I believe is offered as a legitimate voice of the mainstream Christian faith community of Louisiana. Then, I want to leave you with one question, among so many, but it is a question relative to sentencing and incarceration that I pray you will seriously and carefully consider in your deliberations: When is it right, just, and most effectively workable for the purposes of law, to continue to incarcerate someone who has been rehabilitated?
Premise #1: The Purpose of the Law
The purpose of the law is to create, establish, and maintain a moral order of society, and where violated to restore it.
A democratic society is constantly working to discover and fashion the order of society it considers moral. Those adhering to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions seek an order reflective of the compassion, righteousness, and justice of God. Christians specifically seek an order that reflects the mind of Christ and is most transparent to the kingdom of God.
Premise #2: The Power of the Law
The power of the law is in its symbolic clout. It points to what is considered moral: to the unity and orderliness of society, to what is truly important to society, to the degree to which certain behavior will not be tolerated in society, and to its power to curse.
For example, in criminal law the sanctions to be imposed for violation of different laws indicate the extent to which an offender will be judged by society. A fine tells potential offenders that they should obey a particular law, but a felony conviction imposes a significant curse on the moral behavior of the offender, and makes her or him an outcast. The law does not work as effectively as a deterrent – not nearly so – in reliance on punishment. A better deterrent is the threat that an offender will genuinely experience the curse or censure of one’s peers, family, friends, circle of society.
The ultimate power of the law is in its ability to restore the moral order after it has been violated; the most effective restoration is reconciliation of the offender to society as a body.
Premise #3: The necessity for justice in the execution of the law
The law must be just and it must be exercised (and this includes it’s correctional systems) with that justice reflective of the moral order it establishes and protects. If so, the citizens are far more likely to respect, cooperate and obey the authorities and the law itself.
If the order of society is sufficiently moral, and justice is applied with equality and fairness for all citizens, the vast majority will be motivated to cooperate with one another and act within the established bounds of law. When the law is applied unequally, with prejudice or malice or insufficient regard for classes, communities, and categories of the citizenry – such as may be defined by race, poverty, or sexuality – the law will not operate effectively within them. In such communities or segments of society, offenders are far less likely to experience the curse of their peers or feel like an outcast when convicted of a crime.
Premise #4: The power of the law to shape the human hearts of society
To the extent that law reflects an order of society that (1) is genuinely perceived as moral and (2) is applied equally and with fairness for all citizens, it is a remarkably powerful tool for challenging and reshaping the opinions, the philosophies, and even the hearts of citizens.
Premise #5: The power of the law to teach immorality
Insights concerning the purpose and power of the law have an underside that has to be recognized and guarded against vigilantly: Immoral law teaches immorality. As one of the guardians of what is moral and of what will make the order of society genuinely moral, of what will best conform society to the mind of Christ, the church is called to be vigilant against acquiescence to that which is immoral and most especially when it is established in law.
One crucial question this poses before you, and the question I leave you: When is it right, just, and most effectively workable for the purposes of law, to continue to incarcerate someone who has been rehabilitated?”
Joe Morris Doss is a bishop of the Episcopal Church and a member of the Louisiana Bar. He has served parishes in Lake Charles, New Orleans, Palo Alto, California, and New Jersey. He has also spent ample time in courts and in the halls of justice, receiving two honorary doctorates for his work outside the strictly institutional lines of the church.
VOTE kicked off this past weekend by taking a trip to the State Capitol to deliver an important message. VOTE members from New Orleans, Baton Rouge and beyond came out in the dozens on Friday afternoon, speaking truth to power at the most recent Felony Classification Task Force meeting.
Louisiana has more than 700 crimes that are considered felonies, yet there is no organized system to ensure uniformity and sentencing by felony type. The Task Force was created as an attempt to bring order to the hodge-podge list of felonies, so that families, lawyers, and judges have more guidance on sentencing ranges. Because the task force is primarily comprised of attorneys appointed by the State, VOTE members felt it was important for the attorneys to hear directly from people most impacted by their decisions.
Many formerly incarcerated people gave touching testimonies about their experiences of being incarcerated and why they believed their sentences were far too harsh. Fox Rich--a local formerly incarcerated woman who hosted the Facebook livestream of our recent First Annual Formerly and Currently Incarcerated Women and Girls Day march--spoke of how her husband and his nephew, who are both still incarcerated, were sentenced to an extremely long sentence for a nonviolent charge.. Another VOTE member, Adinas Perkins, spoke about how her former drug usage led to a prison sentence, yet what she really needed was rehabilitation. “It ain’t necessary that judges have to sentence all these people to prison just because they are addicts,” she said. “Actually they're sick.” Perkins now is an integral member of her community, helping out and sharing her story wherever and whenever she can.
The Task Force began meeting in September and has only one meeting remaining before they present their final report and possible legislative recommendations. VOTE intends to see the Task Force birth a rational felony classification system, and especially wants to see an armed robbery charge returned to sanity, which would mean reducing the maximum sentence from 99 years down to 40 years. VOTE will reject any proposal that will increase mass incarceration by lengthening sentences or creating new mandatory minimums.
Friday’s action is one of many that aim to serve formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones. As VOTE gears up for the legislative session beginning in just a few months, we need all hands on deck to show up and make our presence known. We will continue to fight for criminal justice reform and resist any attempts to roll back last year’s reforms.
-March 2: Statewide Summit, 10:30am - 2:30pm, Southern University, Baton Rouge.
-March 27: Lobby Day, Time TBD, State Capitol, Baton Rouge
We’ll gather to bring the calls for criminal justice reform to the legislature. Last year, more than 600 people turned out. This year, we want to triple our numbers! Invite your friends!
Recap of Reentry Week: Major updates in housing, employment, voting rights, and a political prisoner comes home.
Over 100,000 people were released from prison during the first annual Reentry Week. While much of the focus was on government agencies improving their awareness of challenges we face, a few directly impacted people and organizations were given an opportunity to talk about solutions. From New Orleans to Los Angeles to the White House, formerly incarcerated people are living testimonies to the maxim: People closest to the problem are closest to the solution.
New Orleans’ new housing policy gets national recognition
Reentry Week Monday: Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE) joined our allies Stand With Dignity, the Vera Institute of Justice, Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services to educate HUD’s Deputy Secretary, Lourdes Castro Ramirez, about the importance of our revolutionary public housing policy that allows people to reunite with families despite having a past criminal conviction. VOTE's Norris Henderson and Bruce Reilly, along with members of Stand With Dignity, expressed the historical implications of HUD's current exclusion policies, the comprehensive oppressive impact, and how we came together to make our proposal happen.
It is important for top government officials to understand the typical genesis of social justice reforms. Some know from their experiences, and some also forget. First, impacted people complain amongst each other and start to vocalize and submit their requests and petitions for policy change. They are ignored. They start to organize, understanding that they are not the only one, focus on the government official or agency as a target, and amass their data, their stories, their coalitions and their strategies. After several years, the agency starts to understand that the status quo they had been enforcing is hurting, not helping, the community. Then a reform begins to take shape, at times whittled down from the directly impacted people’s original needs.
When the reform is announced and embraced, all too often the impacted people are either left behind or relegated to props for a politician or policy makers. The work by impacted people in the criminal justice sphere is beginning to be seen as irreplaceable by allies who fight for our cause. This strange schism would likely not exist except for the dearth of convicted people working at many organizations that fight for the rights of convicted people. Ultimately, we need to forge those bonds more tightly, and the most effective way would be for their staffs, particularly senior leadership, to be at least 50% people with conviction histories.
The current tone, exemplified by Deputy Castro Rodriguez, is positive. It is important to remain in this space of collaboration, and continue forward in tackling deeply rooted dilemmas constructed through mass incarceration. 17,000 people were released on Monday.
Voting Rights: A 150 Year Struggle Continues
Reentry Week Wednesday: the Louisiana House of Representatives contradicted their actions from just a day before, and went against the principles of rehabilitation, reentry, and assimilation by maintaining disenfranchisement for 70,000 people on probation and parole in our communities. “Nay” votes included nineteen people from the Orleans Parish, Jefferson Parish, and Capital Region of Louisiana, i.e. the most impacted areas of the state, including Orleans representatives Raymond Garofalo, Stephanie Hilferty, and Christopher Leopold. Had fourteen of those people voted in favor, the state would have sent another positive message: People who want to be part of civil society are welcome to do so.
Louisiana, for now, leaves in place the structural legacy of slavery, at a time when there is a legal and legislative battle to tear down the monuments of Rebel leaders, led by a grassroots coalition #TakeEmDownNOLA. Whereas slavery was not entirely abolished after the Civil War (instead requiring a conviction to enslave someone under the 13th Amendment), directly impacted people were without real voting rights for a century. None of this had even a hope of changing- until now. Of all the dastardly tactics to deny voting rights (Literacy test, Understanding obscure clauses of the Constitution test, poll taxes, whether your Grandfather could vote, or plain old violence and intimidation), disenfranchisement based on convictions is the last overt barrier to protecting citizenship for all. We are fourteen votes away.
Our work to extend voting rights to everyone in the community extends beyond Louisiana. On Friday, Virginia’s governor decided to stop creating a civic death sentence in their state, and restore voting rights to 200,000 people who have completed all prison, probation and parole. Today, the GOP lawmakers in Virginia publicly announced they are hiring a lawyer to challenge this determination in court. This illustrates the problem of when the fundamental element of a democracy, voting rights, has turned into a partisan battle.
Virginia’s governor, as former Democratic Party chairman, and friend of the Clintons, likely expected this outcome. Fortunately, the Governor will need to defend his decision on non-partisan legal grounds; although if there is a chance to rule on the issue simply based on his authority to act (without getting into the merits of the action), the court would likely take such an easy out. Similarly, because civic death sentence is so out of line with modern American values, the GOP lawyer is likely to focus on the Governor’s authority rather than the merits of his decision.
Our people speaking truth to power in the White House
Reentry Week Wednesday: the White House announced its Champions of Change, ten people on the ground who are paving the way with hard work in different arenas. Among this group of leaders is Dorsey Nunn, a true leader among leaders. Dorsey is the only formerly incarcerated person serving as the executive director of a law firm (Legal Services for Prisoners with Children), and he has so much credibility he needs no law degree. He is a co-founder of All of Us or None (the group who started the Ban the Box movement), and president of the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement (FICPFM), which began when directly impacted leaders began to consolidate their efforts from around the nation.
Dorsey dropped the proverbial mic in the White House days before President Obama literally did. Drawing strength from his “Homies,” he kept it real, particularly pointing out the misguided trend of reserving reentry and rehabilitation only for the so-called “first time non-violent offenders.” His inspirational message included the power of informal education gained in prison from elders, writers such as Fanon, Orwell, Ellison, and in the Black Panther Party newspapers.
Dorsey also let Congress know that their proposed Fair Chance Act (for employment) should include Banning the Box for contractors doing business with the federal government. Especially as FICPFM and allies already pushed the President to sign an executive order banning the box in federal government, this is the natural next step. It would serve as a legitimate blow to structural discrimination and structural racism. In Dorsey Nunn’s parting words:
“If you can see me as an asset instead of a liability or a disabled person, then maybe you will invest in me in a different way. I don’t think y’all see me for who I am, I think y’all see me for what you need to do with me, instead of thinking about what you might do with me.”
See the entire panel below, with Dorsey Nunn beginning at 1:55.
The Federal government makes moves on housing policy
Reentry Week Wednesday: Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California unveiled the Fair Chance at Housing Act of 2016. This addresses the discrimination people face with entry to public housing programs and the quickness for which they are evicted. This is legislation FICPFM has been calling for since releasing the 2013 report, “Communities, Evictions, and Criminal Convictions.” Rather than addressing these problems one by one, as VOTE has done in New Orleans, a federal program should be reformed at the source.
“The current harsh policies for housing assistance are a direct result of the harmful and ineffective legacies of the War on Drugs and the War on Crime,” Waters said. “Far too many Americans now carry a criminal record that limits their opportunities throughout life, despite the fact that they have successfully rehabilitated or taken great strides to change their lives. In particular, it has restricted access to housing assistance, which is a critical part of the rehabilitation and reentry process.”
This is a bill that every reformer in Congress needs to embrace, as HUD’s mission is to address the housing dilemmas of low-income communities. The Fair Chance at Housing Act directly builds upon the agency’s growing awareness that the stratification of families due to convictions was a failure. By pushing people from low-income communities, people became widgets for corrections budgets rather than employment, housing, or education budgets. After prison, we were placed in limbo for decades- and society may finally be prepared to turn the corner, turn us from ‘widgets’ into people, from problems into assets, and whittle away at the structural disparities created during the past five decades of a militarized Drug War.
17,000 people were released on Wednesday.
Reentry Week Thursday: HUD held a massive webinar attended by people all over the nation; so many people logged on, even this writer could not log on. They discussed the need to focus on reentry problems, and highlighted the work in New Orleans as an important step. This is huge. It validates the work of so many people who were formerly dismissed as disgruntled activists. People who never received a penny for all the writing, the testimony, the organizing, even the all-night vigil we held to reinforce the reality that we are going to sleep somewhere, regardless of where we are allowed. It also highlights the sad reality that the jails do not turn people away, we also make room for more cages, and society has been using cages as a costly method of dealing with homelessness, joblessness, mental illness, and addiction. Costly both in dollars and in lives.
17,000 people were released on Thursday.
One Man’s Reentry: Gary Tyler leaves Death Row far behind
Reentry Week Friday: Gary Tyler became one of roughly 17,000 people released on that day. Gary was sentenced to death after, at age 16, his all-black school bus came under attack by an all-white mob opposing forced integration in 1974. Gary’s legal case is extraordinarily typical in explaining the too long, and too narrow, path to release from a wrongful conviction. A path that most wrongfully convicted people can never complete.
Gary was sentenced to life without parole after his death sentence was considered unconstitutional. When his mandatory life without parole sentence was also recently considered unconstitutional, a new opportunity arose to resentence Gary, and at this point he had amassed international support as a political prisoner. The evidence didn’t actually add up in his case, but first we had to decide killing children was cruel and unusual. Then we had to decide mandatory sentences to die in prison, for children, did not take into account our children’s underdeveloped brains and that youth should be a mitigating factor in sentencing. Instead, this concept of the “Super Predator” has arisen with a false belief that young people who do wrong prove that evil is in their hearts, that we are born this way.
Louisiana is in the process of creating a new sentence for the 299 other people, like Gary Tyler, who need a new sentence. Last week at the legislature, VOTE testified in opposition to a bill that would set parole eligibility, for those sentenced to a Life sentence, at 35 years. This is far too high, out of step with the rest of the nation, and does not create the “meaningful opportunity for release” mandated by Miller v. Alabama.
Meanwhile, in another room, VOTE testified in support of closing the loophole on adult Life parole eligibility. The current law known as 20/45, requires people to be 45 years old with 20 years behind bars to be eligible for parole. This is a law first drafted by the Angola Special Civics Project, the precursor to VOTE. The loophole, however, is that people younger than 25 would end up serving more than 20 years prior to eligibility. It only makes the case that 35 years, for children, is far too much. If 35 years becomes the law of Louisiana, there will certainly be further litigation claiming this is unconstitutional. All this to say only 3% of people leave prison on parole.
Like many wrongfully convicted people before him, Gary pled guilty to manslaughter and a sentence he has long since completed. People seeking to contact Gary Tyler can reach out to VOTE through our website or P.O. Box, and we will forward correspondence.
Reentry Week continues every week, until everyone comes home
There are 100 million people with convictions, and most were sentenced to probation rather than prison. Today, another 17,000 sons and daughters were released from incarceration while many thousands more were convicted. We represent all ethnicities, religions, neighborhoods, and a range of political beliefs. All of us are struggling with a lifetime of discrimination and exclusion, regardless of what we did in the past and who we are today.
If law enforcement ever focuses on, for example, the prevalence of ‘white-on-white crime,’ along with the concentrated use of drugs in college dorms by people age 18-25 (i.e. the dominant age group of people entering the criminal justice system), then we can have a genuine conversation about the criminal justice system in a way that avoids the nation’s historic struggle with racism. Until that time however, convictions are a proxy for race, and discrimination resembles the same things fought for over the past century. This is true whether people are aware of it or not.
It is not only people with convictions who need education. We must educate the disconnected public, including policy makers, about our abilities, our families, our hurdles, achievements, and dreams. We don’t have the big microphones, and as Dorsey said: he may not be back in the White House again. So he, FICPFM, VOTE and others travel to these spaces and do what we can to provide this education.
Mass incarceration is gutting our nation from the inside, bankrupting us morally, politically, and financially; and history will likely place the American gulag and corresponding Drug War into a space of errors and evils, sitting alongside slavery, Jim Crow, female disenfranchisement, Native American genocide, and Japanese-American internment camps.
In the words of Franz Fanon, “the peasant doesn’t have to talk about the truth, the peasant is the truth.” And we are trying to educate others through our words, deeds, and mere presence. Reentry.