We know that the people closest to the problems of mass incarceration are the ones who will transform the criminal justice system in the most lasting, humane ways. VOTE is made up of such people, and this legislative session we have been working to bridge the gap between the current reality of an unjust system and our vision for a better future. We have had successes and setbacks, all the while building people power and momentum. Every day since April 8, VOTE staff and members have been at the State Capitol testifying on bills that support our mission to protect the rights of currently and formerly incarcerated people (FIP), and fighting against the ones that don’t. As people who have spent time behind bars ourselves or are supporting loved ones who are still locked up, we know we deserve so much better. As our mission says, we deserve the FULL restoration of our civil and human rights. This session, we’re focused on the following three topics, though the list of what we we’re fighting for is much longer, and we won’t quit until each item is checked off.
We deserve sentences that match the crime
One of the drivers of mass incarceration is overly-punitive sentences that result from the habitual offender law. More commonly known as the "three strikes” law, this allows judges to lengthen sentences for people who have been convicted of more than one crime, even if their first and second crimes were non-violent 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 non-violent convictions, and it has to end.
Often, the factors that lead people to commit crimes are systemic and deeply rooted, such as addiction, poverty and mental illness. The three strikes law only focuses on the symptoms of these underlying problems, and punishes the people dealing with them. The majority of people serving time in Louisiana under this law (64%) are in prison for non-violent offenses(1), and they are also disproportionately Black (79%)(2). HB 518 will remove non-violent offenses from the habitual offender law, which would drastically reduce the impact of overly-punitive sentencing. The bill passed the House Committee and is coming up for a vote on the House Floor on Wednesday, May 22! Contact your legislators and tell them to vote YES on HB 518 TODAY! (Reading this after May 22? You can still check the status of the bill here. If it’s moved forward, we still need you to contact your legislators. This applies to all the bills referenced in this post.)
We deserve transparency
Anyone who has been involved with the criminal justice system knows that it is confusing--often intentionally so. There is a lot of fine print, and most people going to court aren’t provided adequate legal counsel. This legislative session, VOTE is pushing to pass HB 351, which will make sure people who are offered a plea deal are made aware of the true impact of their conviction, including how having a criminal record will affect their access to housing, voting, and employment for the rest of their lives. At the bill’s House Committee hearing, it was clear we struck a nerve when Pete Adams of the District Attorneys Association testified that HB 351 would “slow down the process--it literally would shut down justice,” which is the opposite of true. His words are in keeping with District Attorneys’ common attempts to pressure people into signing away their rights via drive-by sentencing. As an antidote, this bill would provide more awareness to people facing a loss of freedom. As of now, it has been amended to ensure lawyers inform people of all plea offers by the state (which is constitutionally required under Missouri v. Frye). This bill has passed the House and has moved to the Senate Committee. Contact your legislators and tell them to vote YES on HB 351!
The lack of transparency in the trial process doesn’t end with the courts, it extends to bail bond companies as well. Bail bonds companies have been illegally overcharging people for bail for years in New Orleans. The Commissioner of Insurance has issued a directive ordering companies to repay the $6 million they’ve stolen from New Orleans families over the last 14 years(3). The corruption in the bail bonds industry most directly impacts women--the mothers, grandmothers, wives and friends of incarcerated men--who are also often the primary caretakers when their loved ones are incarcerated. VOTE opposes SB 108. The bill would make the order for bail bond companies to repay customers void. It is coming to a vote on the House Floor on Wednesday, May 22. Contact your legislators to oppose SB 108 today!
We deserve to participate in civic duties
The right to participate in civic duties such as voting has historically been denied to certain United States citizens, including formerly incarcerated people. As FIP, we know that voting is a pillar of our nation’s democracy, and one of the most powerful tools for change. Our huge legislative win from last year--which expanded voting rights to 40,000 formerly incarcerated people under Act 636--was already under attack this session. HB 527 tried to take away the right to vote for people specifically convicted of sex crimes. This bill sought to divide our community of FIP based on our specific convictions, and roll back the important progress we made last year. VOTE responded by mobilizing our base. We descended upon the Capitol in mass to show our opposition. On May 1, we filled the House Committee on Government Affairs room with 100 blue shirts, and watched as our leaders Norris Henderson and Checo Yancy testified against the bill alongside our ally, Rep. Pat Smith (D-District 67). We succeeded in defeating the bill in the committee, a testament to the strength in our numbers and in our stories.
In an effort to build on last year’s win, VOTE also pushed HB 65 this year, which would have restored the right to serve on a jury to people with a felony conviction who have not been incarcerated for at least five years. Like voting, the right to serve on a jury is one of the most fundamental rights guaranteed in both the Louisiana and United States Constitutions. Excluding FIP from jury service further disenfranchises an already stigmatized population. In Louisiana, more than 100,000 people are currently serving a felony sentence, while hundreds of thousands more have completed their punishments yet are barred for life from serving on juries(4). Though they are excluded from this civic duty, it is precisely this type of community engagement that reduces recidivism and promotes successful reentry. Research also shows that the more diverse a jury is, the more fair it will be(5). Allowing FIP to serve on a jury would therefore benefit all parties involved. On May 1, HB 65 passed the House Committee on Criminal Justice but lost by a 26-62 vote two weeks later on the House Floor. Despite this setback, we will keep fighting to restore the basic civil rights that should be guaranteed to every citizen of this country.
We know that we have to keep fighting for ourselves, because no one is looking out to protect our wins as much as we are. Our community deserves fair sentences, transparency, and participation in civic duties, among other rights, and we will keep working every day to secure them. In two weeks, we’ll dive even deeper into additional rights that we’re fighting for this legislative session, and how they connect with other states around the country who are doing parallel work. Together, we will all build the justice system we deserve.
(2) Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Briefing Book, June 30, 2018. https://www.doc.la.gov/media/1/Briefing%20Book/July%2018/july.2018.bb.pdf
(5) Sommers, S.R. (2006). On racial diversity and group decision-making: Identifying multiple effects of racial composition on jury deliberations, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 90, 597.