This week, VOTE and allies filled the House Governmental Affairs Committee to weigh in on four bills that impact people with criminal records. Considering that Louisiana leads the nation on percentage of its people who have criminal records, such laws can impact entire families and communities. Unfortunately, the majority of the Committee backpedaled from their positions of a year ago, and now appear staunchly against full citizenship for people convicted of crimes.
Is disenfranchisement a punishment?
“What crimes are we talking about,” asked Rep. John Schroder from St. Tammany. He seemed very interested in determining who, in his opinion, were worthy of having voting rights following a conviction. Such an approach echoes the zeitgeist that developed collateral punishments across every phase of people’s lives. The spirit of ‘worthiness’ is how people with convictions have been denied education, housing, jobs, voting and volunteer opportunities for decades.
There are hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people in every parish under community supervision, to which Rep. Schroder would not want to “soften punishment.” Unfortunately, several legislators appeared to have no desire to encourage successful patterns of behavior while on probation or parole.
The committee appeared ready to vote against HB229, Rep. Pat Smith’s bill that would allow people to vote who are still on community supervision after five years. Rep. Smith voluntarily withdrew the bill to make amendments that strengthen and simplify its purpose.
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” Russell Darrensberg, a VOTE member, testified, “and if he repents, forgive him. Judge not, and you will not be judged. Condemn not, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Watch the full video of the hearing.
The Committee keeps the ”voting rights”question away from voters
In 1974, the People of Louisiana voted for a constitution that did not bar people under community supervision. The constitution they ratified instead allowed the legislature to suspend voting rights for people who are “under order of imprisonment.” That phrase, however, was not defined. A few years later, the legislature decided to suspend those voting rights, and to define “under order of imprisonment” to include people under community supervision. This definition ultimately changed the constitution without being brought to the people.
Our other voting rights bill, HB235, would create a ballot question for the people, forty years after it should have been asked. The proposed amendment was struck down by the committee 5-2. Just like HB229, over 20 cards were in support of the bill, with none opposed. Nobody has spoken out against voting rights, except members of the Committee..
When Rep. Barry Ivey asked Rep. Denise Marcelle (sponsor of HB235) if she also supported sending HB351 (another ballot initiative) to the people, Rep. Marcelle replied:
“I believe that it’s always democracy when it goes to the people. I believe in the people of this state, and I believe they have the ability to weigh those positions.”
To which Rep. Ivey replied “I appreciate your consistency.” Such consistency would not be found by him or four of his colleagues.
Reps. Robert Shadoin, Barry Ivey, Greg Miller, Stephen Pugh, and Michael Dannahay voted against HB235, and to prevent democracy from running its course. Reps. Sam Jenkins and Jimmy Harris voted in favor of letting the people of Louisiana decide on voting rights.
Committee unanimously votes for other amendment on the ballot
In a move that can only be deemed hypocritical, the Committee then voted 7-0 in favor of passing Rep. Miller’s HB351, creating a 15 year waiting period to hold office, following completion of a sentence. The dialogue on this bill spoke highly of “trusting the people,” and yet never once in forty years trusting the people to vote on voting rights.
Ironically, if the Committee really trusted the people of Louisiana, they would trust that no unworthy candidate would be elected to office, regardless of how distant their criminal history. They would not need this bill to protect them.
When Rep. Walt Leger entered the hearing, so the Committee could establish a quorum, he challenged the justification of a 15 year ban, which he views as an additional penalty after someone has served their time and paid their debt.
“It’s not to punish convicted felons, it’s to establish trust in government,” claimed Rep. Miller. To that, Leger, noted that the legislators have a 30% approval rating. He also quickly noted the hypocrisy of denying the voting rights question from the people.
“Right now convicted felons can run for government. They can run for our seats, “Miller said. And perhaps that is proper, in the nation’s conviction capital.
The Committee approves streamlining voting rights restoration
The committee also voted favorably on HB168, which would streamline the process for people to get their voting rights back following a conviction. The current law is unclear on how to register to vote upon completion of a sentence. Most Registrars require a person to bring in official paperwork proving they are not on probation or parole. Although the Department of Corrections currently transmits a monthly report to the Secretary of State listing all the people who are eligible to have their voting rights suspended (due to prison or probation), the DOC does not transmit who has completed their sentence. HB168 would change that, make it simple, and electronically transmit the completion of sentence data.
Contact your representative in the House and ask them to vote yes on HB168.
Keep up with criminal justice bills, with VOTE’s Bill Tracker