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!
The crime and safety statistics of New Orleans, the most incarcerated city in America, is practically unremarkable. While still having one of the higher crime rates among 100 cities, and a bloated murder rate, it does not make anyone’s “Top 10 Most Dangerous Cities” listings. Despite this, the answer to nearly every social or public health problem is a cage, tasking the likes of our District Attorney, Sheriff, judges and public defenders with solving addiction, homelessness, mental illness, lack of education, and unemployment. It is no mystery why these solutions systemically elude us.
Prior to the Civil War, there was no need for convict labor for large public projects such as the levee system. There was also no need to disenfranchise massive numbers of people when elections came down to contests between wealthy white men. The slave system maintained the status quo for as long as historically possible. Too long, of course. And where power is threatened, the powerful will generally take action to assure threats are eliminated.
In 1868, Louisiana expanded the class of convicted people who were denied voting rights. It went from the white men who were convicted of forgery, bribery, and perjury to barring all men (Black or white) who were “under order of imprisonment.” Meanwhile, the labor force continued nearly uninterrupted because the 13th Amendment allowed slavery to continue as long as people were convicted of crimes. As one plantation owner famously remarked, “before we used to own them. Now we just rent them.”
The equation is simple:
Conviction + Disenfranchisement = Hard Labor – Political Power to Change.
This arrangement went largely untouched for 150 years. Along the way, Louisiana became the most notoriously creative in ways to suppress Black voting while also building up the disproportionately largest gulag in the world. Poll Tax, Grandfather Clause, Understandings Clause, and outright murder were some of the most well known tactics to maintain power, but people should recognize that Louisiana is one of only two states that allow a non-unanimous jury for convictions.
The Fear of a Modern Slave Rebellion
When Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace, and Robert King were organizing in the early 1970s to ease the oppression of legally enslaved people at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, when they were organizing under the most logical banner of the Black Panthers, their demise was practically assured by history. Surprisingly, they were not outright murdered and joined a long lineage of activists that did not begin with Dr. King, Malcolm X, or Fred Hampton. And just as surprisingly, they survived the initial backlash to a wrongful accusation of killing a prison guard, unlike Emmit Till, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, or Tamir Rice (none of whom were accused of killing a law enforcement officer). Miraculously, they overcame horrid conditions of oppressive incarceration, unlike Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Gynnya McMillen- none of whom, mysteriously, even made it past the police station. It is amazing that they were not gunned down in the prison yard like George Jackson, a Black Panther incarcerated in California, that led to the 1971 Attica Prison Riot in New York.
Every part of the Angola 3 achieving delayed justice, and release, defies gravity in America- especially in Louisiana. The release of Albert Woodfox, following King and Wallace, is a testament to their bond of purpose, their will to persevere, and the growing public intolerance of injustice.
The Right to Defend Against Government Accusations
One can look back at the early 1970’s and reasonably conclude that Woodfox, Wallace, and King never had a chance. What we need to know, however, is would they have a chance today? Woodfox had a second trial, a second one where the state acted so unfairly it was also thrown out by reviewing courts. Today politicians use a budget crisis as a reason to underfund the constitutionally mandated right to counsel, and yet the government is not using that same crisis to close down prison and jail cells.
Those wondering why the ACLU is suing the Orleans Public Defender and the state body that funds the public defenders need to realize it is actually a person denied counsel who is suing. Such a person is the only one with a right to sue, as the right attaches to the person accused of a crime. As it happens, this plaintiff’s claim impacts us all. Will we get a lawyer? Will the 300 people, whose childhood sentences of Life Without Parole were recently thrown out, get lawyers? Would Woodfox have gotten a proper team appointed for a third trial? One way to keep the equation going is to overwork the defense side and continue the conviction system as originally designed. But it is not all static, of course. Slave labor may not be the needed outcome of the equation anymore, as it has some new variables:
(Accusation – Funded Defense Team) +
(Vigorous Police Investigation x Political Ambitious District Attorneys)
Prison Employment +
Contracts for Services (Medical, Food, Telecommunications, Sanitation, Transportation)
+ Incarcerated People Who Are Not “Unemployed”
The public defender has no “right to defend,” thus a demand made upon them, to be passed along to the state budget crunchers, must come from the people with constitutional rights: defendants. While Louisiana struggles with a budget crisis, they can think about the multiple millions of dollars spent trying to maintain the wrongful convictions of the Angola 3 (and many others), and the cellblocks dedicated to wrongful convictions, think of the children sentenced to die in prison, along with Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizaro and Jefferson Sheriff Newell Normand’s recent comments: about how easing marijuana possession enforcement will basically send New Orleans into a murderous crime spree. Rather than tie marijuana to Doritos, as most Americans do, these out-of-touch elected leaders tie this drug (legalized in several states) to guns.
Marijuana is a “gateway drug,” but not to some realm of intoxicated violence and the bloody business of unregulated commerce. It is a gateway drug to the criminal justice system, where someone gets a “strike” or probation status that forever erodes future constitutional rights.
Peeling Back 150 Years of Construction
Taking a public health approach to the problems our criminal justice system has helped create and exacerbate will not happen overnight. It will come through changes both modest and bold. We need a combination of increased rights, services provided, inspiration, and reducing the punishments. In some cases, punishment needs to be outright eliminated.
Louisiana, Minnesota, and Florida are currently moving towards a citizenship dilemma that will never go away until resolved: When will people living in our communities, on probation or parole, have voting rights- the most basic element of citizenship and democracy. Until this mass of people (over 70,000 in Louisiana) have this tenet of citizenship we will always feel excluded, and be excluded. This exclusion extends to our children, into our friendships, and impacts our workplaces.
Maryland’s legislature recently voted to override their governor’s veto, restoring citizenship to all people who are outside of prison and living in the community. Kentucky, however, has restored then reversed voting rights by executive orders; proving the tenuous nature some view this fundamental cornerstone of democracy.
Those who oppose voting rights don’t believe in democracy.
They are simply un-American.
While very fundamental questions linger about allowing people back into the community from where we come, some make moves on reducing punishments. It is not possible for the 80 million convicted Americans to undergo the brutality, including decades in torturous solitary confinement, suffered by the Angola 3. The taxpayers cannot afford it, the communities cannot absorb it, and the individual families cannot survive it.
President Obama recently eliminated solitary confinement for children in federal custody. Acknowledging that sensory deprivation amounts to torture is a significant moment in mainstream political history, and hopefully our leaders will soon recognize that torture should not be tolerable on our adults. Hopefully state leaders will follow federal leaders, who should be incentivizing such reductions in brutality in the same way federal dollars contributed to the massive spending boom required to build mass incarceration as we know it.
The federal government is close to passing a sentencing reform act that would apply to their federal prisoners. It is important for people to understand that such federal initiatives DO NOT apply to people in state custody, as each state has its own set of independent state laws that are only limited by the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of “cruel and unusual punishment” and protected rights of defendants.
Those who wonder what each of the latest federal bills “will do,” they should be asking the interpretations by impacted people- those who have a stake in the actual success of the litigation beyond claiming victory in its passage. As one would expect, federal legislation often doesn’t begin by asking for too much and typically gets watered down further in the process. If a bill has a modest, but genuine, impact it should be embraced as such rather than over-hyped in a manner that leads people to wash their hands and proclaim a job “well done.”
The federal Fair Sentencing Act will immediately impact some people, and represent a downward trend in sentencing laws, but will not go much further in producing lasting reductions in mass incarceration. Reducing the mandatory minimum on 1kg of heroin / 5kg of cocaine / 280g crack / 50g meth (from ten years to five) will only help the few people who may be serving under ten years for such a major amount of hard drugs. Similarly, the reduction on 100g of heroin / 500g of cocaine / 28g of crack / 100 marijuana plants / 5g of meth (five years minimum to two) will only help those few people where the judge would have given them less.
Doing What You Can, Where You Can
As VOTE’s executive director Norris Henderson always says, “Get in where you fit in.” Some will work on citizenship while others on sentencing. Some gravitate to addiction services and others need to build homes, but ultimately we need to be building our community in ways that involves us all, that puts us all in it to win it, collectively ensuring injustice does not occur.
Welcome home Albert Woodfox.
May you live a long and peaceful life full of all the things you hold dear.
Rest in power, Herman Wallace.
May your spirit guide us along the arc of humanity, the one that bends towards justice.
Keep fighting for justice, Robert King.
May you grow ever stronger through vindication.
Today, President Obama will sign an Executive Order to Ban the Box for all prospective federal employees. This represents a significant step in the past decade of organizing by directly impacted people. What began as a San Francisco ordinance proposed by All of Us or None, to give people a chance at an interview, has ultimately gone viral. This latest step has been the focus of the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People, Families Movement (FICPFM), and received an incredible lift from John Legend's plea for all Americans to sign a Ban the Box petition.
Last week, VOTE Executive Director Norris Henderson and other members of the FICPFM delivered over 100,000 signatures to the White House. The President has promised that this number commands a response, and he held to it. The FICPFM was formed as an alliance of grassroots organizations by leaders who have served time in prison and/or traveled long distances to visit loved ones for just an hour or two. Tens of millions of Americans live under vast interlocking laws that impact every aspect of life, from job opportunities to housing discrimination, education to health care. Where 80 million people have convictions, their families also deal with the lifetime consequences.
Norris Henderson and FICPFM members call on President Obama to Ban the Box, one week ago.
Details remain to be seen, but as the chief executive of the nation's largest employer, President Obama has followed the path of Koch Industries, Target, and others who have recognized that it is poor public policy (and bad business) to either automatically reject an application with the box checked, ("Have you ever been convicted of a felony?") or to subconsciously plant the seed of rejection by reading that information before making any other assessment of a person's abilities.
Although a momentous step in the struggle to restore citizenship and equality after serving punishment for a conviction, considerable work remains to be done. The president should take the next logical step and extend Ban the Box to all federal contractors. If they want to business for America, they need to adopt non-discrimination hiring standards. America needs a cultural shift to pave the way for genuine structural change. President Obama has continued a lineage of George Bush recognizing the need for rehabilitation (Second Chance Act) and Bill Clinton's recent apology that he "made the problem worse" through over-incarceration. Our next president must move towards a more constructive approach to the oppressive punishment regime created over the past half-century.
All organizations of the FICPFM remain committed to local, state, and national reforms based on the help our people need, rather than the help someone else wants to give us.