The 2019 Louisiana legislative session is over, which means we are already thinking about election season this fall. We were faced with strong opposition at the Capitol this year, but we came out on top thanks to endless hours of work from VOTE members, staff, and a handful of supportive legislators. This fall, we have a huge opportunity to elect leaders who truly represent us--which will mean less opposition to our legislative efforts in the future. ALL 144 State Representatives and Senators, as well as the Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State will be up for re-election on October 12. When we vote for more leaders like the ones who supported our bills this year, we protect and then advance the progress we've made. Here are the top 10 wins of this legislative session, and the lessons we learned from each. Every win moves us closer to the future we deserve, including a successful election this fall.
1. We mobilized by the hundreds:
This session, we proved that we can mobilize quickly in response to an opportunity. We learned this first one Friday in May, when we got word that seven of our key bills were being heard in House committees the following Monday. VOTE’s team activated our people across the state. We mobilized more than 100 members to fill every hearing room beyond capacity and testify in front of legislators for the first time. Just a few days later VOTE co-hosted a successful Lobby Day with Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, which brought hundreds of people to the Capitol to learn about the legislative process, meet their representatives, and fight for our bills.
Lesson: When we show up together as a network of directly impacted people, we can change the law. This lesson will be important during election season this fall, when we’ll be mobilizing our base to elect leaders who listen to our experiences and support criminal justice reform.
2. We advanced the conversation about fair juries:
A year after our historic campaign to end non-unanimous juries, it was nothing short of poetic to advocate for all people to have the right to serve on a jury. Currently, anyone with a felony conviction is excluded from this civic duty for life.
We made our case with the excellent sponsorship of Rep. Ted James, himself a former criminal defense attorney. Although the bill didn’t pass, it served as a catalyst for a broader discussion. Do our punishments ever end? Are there second chances? When a natural disaster hits Louisiana, all people come together to fulfill their obligations as friends and neighbors. In those times, nobody needs to complete a background check prior to getting involved. The same should apply for other aspects of community life. We must eliminate the segregation policies that bar us from participating in society once we come home.
In the wake of this bill, Louisiana passed a study resolution that will allow the Vera Institute for Justice to create an educational report on the state of juries in Louisiana. This is a huge step forward, and will provide ample information to present our case in the 2020 session.
Lesson: We may not have all of our rights back yet, but this fall we can vote people into office who agree that having a criminal record shouldn’t stop people from engaging in all civic responsibilities, including jury service.
3. We gained more transparency in sentencing:
We believe that everyone facing a charge should be informed of all of the consequences of pleading guilty, including the impact on housing, employment, and voting rights. From this belief, we passed a law requiring defense attorneys to communicate all plea offers to people facing charges.
We also won the opportunity to do a study on what lawyers currently communicate to their clients as part of plea deals, and to provide a recommendation to the Legislature. This is the first time a study of this magnitude has fallen upon FIP, and provides us with the force of law when we conduct our inquiries of district attorneys, court clerks, and others.
Lesson: We expect transparency, not just from courts during sentencing, but also from our politicians in general. When we vote this fall, we will elect leaders who have a track record of honesty, who are committed to telling us the full truth.
4. We lessened the wait time on professional licensing for FIP:
In recent years, proposals regarding professional licensing for formerly incarcerated people have been mixed. On one side are people who genuinely want to see hard workers have a chance to support themselves through their training and talents. On the other are people whose misguided fears lead them to support waiting periods before FIP can participate in the economy.
This year’s reform made several important changes to current law. Licensing boards are now only allowed to discriminate if a crime is violent, sexual, or directly related to the occupation. If the crime is directly related, they can only discriminate for five years. This is a significant step forward in a much longer journey towards fair reentry.
Lesson: Economic opportunity is key to successful reentry, and when we vote this fall, we will vote for people who agree.
5. We protected formerly incarcerated restaurant workers:
Another important win this year was making sure FIP still have access to working in restaurants, which are one of the most reliable places of employment for people with records. A certain bill would have created a new set of barriers for FIP to get over, but VOTE worked with the bill sponsor and their specialist to get this bill pulled from the pipeline.
Lesson: It’s not just what we fight for that matters; it is also what we fight against. We expect our elected officials to fight for employment rights for all FIP, and know that this fall we can vote for leaders who will do just that.
6. We started an honest conversation about the death penalty:
The people of Louisiana are moving towards a genuine debate about the death penalty. This year, Rep. Landry got the bill to eliminate the death penalty out of committee and onto the House Floor, which is a huge step in the right direction. The death penalty debate furthered a very serious conversation about punishment--from the details of cost to the to the issues of morality.
Lesson: Public dialogue matters. Though the bill to abolish the death penalty did not pass this session, we intend to elect leaders who will not shy away from this topic and other important conversations like it, and who share our values.
7. We eliminated a strike:
We know that the ‘three strikes’ law is overly punitive, and has led to massive group of people who are incarcerated on long-term sentences for minor offenses. This year, Louisiana had a chance to amend this law, thereby greatly reducing its negative impact.
What ultimately passed was less robust than we originally hoped, but it is still progress. The change only applies to people who: 1) are given a “first offender pardon,” which means the sentences is carried out as a probation, and then 2) pay to have that record cleared (i.e. expunged)--which can cost upwards of $1,000. Not only are these expungements costly, and therefore inaccessible to the vast majority of formerly incarcerated people, but the person using them has to wait a minimum of six months before they can even start the process. Before we passed this amendment, the first offense would still count as a first strike, even if expunged. Now, the “first offender pardon” will not count as a strike. While this is good news, it will realistically only apply to a small group of people, as this kind of pardon is rare, and expungement is expensive.
Lesson: Change is incremental, and there’s always more work to do. Though the version of the ‘three strikes’ bill that passed did not go far enough, it is a step in the right direction. In 2020, we will make the first offender pardon automatic for all. We will get there by electing leaders who don’t support overly-punitive sentences and will help us eliminate them altogether.
.8. We made unlikely allies:
During a hearing on restoring voting rights to FIP, Senator Dan Claitor, himself a former prosecutor, said “I’m doing this for Checo, and those people in the blue shirts.” He was referring to our Voters Organized to Educate Director Checo Yancy, who is a steady presence at the Capitol despite being on parole for the rest of his life. Further, Representatives Pylant and Hill provided personal stories about people they knew impacted by overly harsh punishments. This testimony shows us that more legislators like Claitor joined our side this year.
Lesson: The shift from a punitive system to a transformational system will depend on converting hearts and minds, even if it is one legislator at a time. This fall, we will vote for officials who already align with our visions, or who are at the very least willing to actively listen to us.
9. We protected our wins:
Last year, Act 636 passed the legislature and restored voting rights to 40,000 Louisianans on probation and parole. This year, Rep. Coussan tried to roll back our victory. His bill went after the lowest of low-hanging fruits--taking away voting rights for people who are on parole or probation for sex crimes involving minors.
We at VOTE know that reform must happen for all of us or none. In other words, we fight for every single formerly incarcerated person, no matter their conviction. We showed up by the hundreds for that bill hearing, and our message of “no rollbacks” was heard. We provided testimonies and more than 100 red cards in opposition. In the end, the sponsor pulled his bill from the floor. It was a huge win for VOTE and our newly eligible voters.
Lesson: Our right to vote is our voice. Act 636 gave us our right to vote back, but that doesn’t mean anything unless we use it. This fall, we have the opportunity to use our voice and elect leaders who will continue to uplift our victories, rather than roll back our progress.
10. We fought for accessible voter registration:
Act 636 went into effect on March 1 of this year. We anticipated some problems with implementation, namely getting everyone who is now eligible successfully registered. This session, we tried to put in a Voter Registration Simplification Act to smooth out the registration process for FIP using the Secretary of State’s offices, staff and protocols. The bill ultimately failed, but we’re ready to take registration into our own hands.
Lesson: We’re always willing to fight one day longer than the other.
VOTE is as determined as ever to get the 40,000 newly eligible voters registered in time for the fall elections--even if we don’t have full support from the Secretary of State and the Department of Corrections. From June 30 to July 3, we’ll be on a voter registration tour with Black Voters Matter. We’ll be stopping in: Baton Rouge (June 30), Lafayette (July 1), Shreveport (July 2), New Orleans (July 3), and some places in between! Come out and get registered, and celebrate with other newly eligible voters! RSVP using the links above.
Like every year since the movement to end mass incarceration has begun, we’ve seen ups and downs. But with each win and each setback, we learn a lesson, as seen above. The biggest one of all? We can, and will, turn the criminal legal system into a truly transformative justice system over time. We are proud of the progress we have made this session, and are excited to build the future we know is possible by electing leaders who will listen to our stories and help us fight for our rights this fall.