Since the New Orleans City Council put their early focus on crime and public safety, our position has been the need to invest in our kids and the agencies best positioned to support and empower those kids. We gave nearly an hour of testimony to that point, and recently signed a letter drafted by VERA and submitted to Mayor Cantrell. VERA, and many of those signatories, are organizations we know and work with, and have been aligned for years.
The NOLA Coalition is a new idea created by people we do not know. We voiced our support for $15 million to “strengthen social services to support our youth.” It appears they took our name, along with many others, and applied it to a two-part plan we had no role in forming, and never saw until it after it was released. A staple of that plan is increasing the surveillance state in New Orleans. Although NOLA Coalition’s website refers to ”collective input,” we were neither asked for it, nor gave it. But we will give it now.
Cameras don’t stop people from the desperation, incitement, poverty, and trauma that causes crime. Tapping our phones is a gross overreach of our civil liberties. Gunshot “detection” is a fraudulent technology that leads to illegal stops and searches that take us deeper into a police state. ”Predictive policing” only reinforces the racially profiled policing used to collect data; for example, if nobody is arresting people on Tulane and Loyola campuses for drugs or sexual assault, then no computer model will ”predict” drug use or sexual assault on the campus of Tulane or Loyola… thus no deployment of police. And in case people forgot, the highest crime rates New Orleans has known was during the ”Tough on Crime” era of hyper-policing and brutal sentences after non-unanimous jury trials.
We encourage people to stay in dialogue, to watch “Katrina Babies,” and to engage the issue of public safety that does not rely on stacking our children up like firewood, closing the door, and walking away. Bridge City quit on rehabilitation for our youth. Many of our schools seem to have quit on kids who struggle as well. Any City Council member, Mayor, District Attorney, or Judges who quit on our kids of New Orleans should quit their job. It is difficult, but this is the work.
The entire VOTE family is extremely saddened by the recent home going of Albert Woodfox. His power, insight, and inspiration has provided Movement energy far beyond one solitary prison cell for decades. “Fox” was a Brother to us all, and a leader within the penitentiary since before his global identity with the ”Angola 3.” We will carry his message of human rights forward, fighting to end oppression and injustice, and attempt to replicate his steadfast determination.
It is a mark of shame that our society would put a man in solitary confinement for 43 years, lacking in health care, exercise, and human contact. It takes a toll on one’s physical, mental, and spiritual self. For Albert to fight back against that torture, and stay incredibly active after his release, is a testament to our human potential.
For the past six years, Albert was with us every step of the way, even as he shared himself worldwide. Anyone who has read his book ”Solitary,” nominated for the National Book Award, has certainly gained a better understanding of America, and our deepest selves. Our comrade, friend, and fallen soldier would want us to band together more than ever to bring an end to the oppressive penal system that has so thoroughly decimated our families and communities.
Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision to transfer some children from Bridge City to Angola fails to address actual problems at the Office of Juvenile Justice, which cannot adequately hire and retain staff, lacks programming, and apparently cannot keep the prison doors locked (strange that Bridge City suddenly became so escapable). OJJ has more staff (roughly 700) than incarcerated youth (roughly 500), 300% turnover in some positions, and a $160 million budget. Adding a new prison in Monroe, five hours away, is likely as ineffective as sending kids three hours away to Angola. All it will solve is the NIMBYism in Jefferson Parish.
But if they are going to be in Angola, let us embrace the wisdom of the adults in the penitentiary. This includes roughly 25 mentors in the Court Reentry Program, along with veterans in their program, and many others who improve not only themselves but the community around them. By moving kids onto “The Farm,” where incarcerated people provide food service, maintenance, and nearly every task it takes to run this small city, these kids could receive some of the most impactful rehabilitative programming available.
It is a myth that incarcerated men and women lack value. Our organization is just a small sample of what we can do; it makes little sense to bring “free” kids into prisons for a Scared Straight program while locking others away from an opportunity. In lieu of no programs by OJJ, let us create one.
To be clear, we oppose incarceration as the chosen tool of accountability, and we very much oppose exiling kids far from home. Until we make the systemic changes to create holistic accountability, rehabilitation and assimilation, we should be putting the wisdom of our elders together with the children who need it most.
First off, let’s get something out of the way. Jails and prisons are not the same things. A jail is defined as a place for people who are awaiting trial or held for minor crimes. Prison is defined as a place where people who have already been convicted of a serious crime are being held. We aren’t coming up with our own definitions, this is straight out of a Merriam-Webster dictionary. It doesn’t get more definitive than that. Although they function as two different things, people often use them interchangeably, which is a serious problem.
Is East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Actually a Prison? No.
Some people may be surprised to learn that the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is not actually a prison. It’s a pre-trial facility, meaning the people being held there have not yet been convicted of anything. So why do they call it a prison when it’s actually a jail? The fix to this problem is quite simple. The Baton Rouge Metro Council has the power to change the name.
Calling it a prison when it is in fact a jail not only harms those being held there but also tarnishes the way people on the outside view what happens within the facility. Last year a study conducted by Professor Andrea Armstrong from the College of Law at Loyola University revealed that the EBR Parish [Jail] had more deaths than any other parish in the state. Since 2012 there have been 57 deaths within the pre-trial facility.
“To me, this is not a problem, this is a pattern. And we need to attack it now. When we have 1, 2, 3 people who are overdosing in our facility that is supposed to be pre-trial, we have a real problem.”
Last week, the Supreme Court of The United States (SCOTUS) reinstated Louisiana’s racist map, drawn by Republican legislators earlier this year.
“District Court Judge Shelly Dick, a Barack Obama appointee, ruled earlier this month that the map likely violated the VRA. Under the map lines, one of the state’s six districts is majority Black, even though approximately one-third of the state’s population is Black. Republicans have a 5-1 advantage in Louisiana’s congressional delegation, with Democratic Rep. Troy Carter representing the one majority-Black seat. Dick had ordered the Louisiana legislature to redraw the map with a second heavily Black district.
The Supreme Court’s stay of that order likely resolves the last redistricting challenge outstanding ahead of the midterms, locking in 50 states’ worth of congressional lines with a little over four months to go until the November election.” – Politico
If you thought these Supreme Court Justices were going to stop at abortion rights, you are sadly mistaken. This decision led by Justice Clarence Thomas didn’t get much news coverage, but it will affect millions of Americans who encounter the criminal legal system.
As a formerly incarcerated man having served 25 years, I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into the Louisiana State Capitol for the first time on March 14, 2022. I carried ideas of what to expect from studying the messiness of the law and engaging in Angola’s Special Civic Project on the inside, but couldn’t be sure my instincts were accurate until I sat in stoic disbelief inside my first committee hearing on the Administration of Criminal Justice.
It was disheartening to witness the lack of empathy, inattention, disconnection to the stories of impacted people, disrespect, character and community attacks, condescending tones, and discourtesy exhibited during committee hearings. It reminded me of ugly elections where one candidate uses a smear campaign, dirty name-calling, and reputation-debasing practices to destroy the character of the other. I saw these same election-origin practices employed inside legislative committees to defeat bills drafted to change policies that negatively impact formerly and currently incarcerated people.
In my opinion, the Louisiana legislative session could have been remarkably pivotal in changing people’s lives for the better if opponents and legislators had worked together with VOTE and our allies to pass meaningful laws. We entered the session hoping to pass bills dealing with post-conviction relief for non-unanimous jury verdicts (HB 271, HB 744); parole consideration for juvenile and adult lifers (HB 730, HB 404); medical parole for very sick people (HB 728); fair housing for formerly incarcerated people (FIP) (HB 665, HB 663, substitute adopted in House Committee: HB 1063); eliminating medical co-pay fees in prison (HB 175); giving incarcerated people the right to vote for redistricting purposes, if they are counted in those districts (HB 846); creating jobs by legalizing the cultivation of marijuana and prohibiting discrimination against FIP when regulating the cannabis industry (HB 125, HB 430).
At the start of the session, VOTE and our allies approached every table with the intention to solve obvious problems with current policies in housing, employment, voting, and the in-justice system. However, opponents approached the same table as if it was an election, with incumbents on one side, and challengers on the other. Rather than searching together for a common resolution to policy initiatives, opponents portrayed us and our allies’ bills as soft on crime, fiscally impossible, or having unintended consequences.
HB 707, sponsored by Rep. Royce Duplessis, would have automated the expungement process for low-level records. Specifically, (1) arrests that did not lead to conviction, (2) misdemeanors, 5 years since the end of the sentence, (3) felonies eligible for “first offender pardon,” (4) non-violent felonies, 10 years since the end of the sentence.
The bill ultimately failed to receive enough votes to make it out of the Senate. Right now, it costs roughly $550 on top of an attorney, to get someone’s record expunged. This makes it incredibly difficult and virtually impossible for many low-income people to have their records cleared. We have been in a 4-year battle for this bill and will continue to fight for it. HB 707 failed with a vote of 42 yeas and 57 nays.
You can attend JAC’s next expungement clinic at our VOTE office in New Orleans on July 13th. For more information, click here.
HB 746: JUVENILE SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
HB 746, by Rep. Royce Duplessis, limits the amount of time a juvenile can be placed in solitary confinement. The bipartisan bill passed the House with a vote of 84 yeas and 11 nays, then passed the Senate with a vote of 32 yeas and 0 nays. HB 746 was amended twice while Duplessis worked with stakeholders, including the Office of Juvenile Justice. The bill has been sent to the Governor and is waiting on executive approval.
HB 517 creates a Medical Advisory Committee within the D.O.C that will report quarterly to the Department of Health. Medical and administrative staff will be hired across 8 facilities and provide constitutional medical care for incarcerated individuals. This is a huge win, for far too long those of us on the inside have been treated as less than human and it’s time that’s changed.
Tuesday the bill received a vote of 33 yeas and 0 nays. The Speaker of the House (Rep. Clay Schexnayder) and President of the Senate (Sen. Patrick Page Cortez) have both signed the bill. It will now be up to Governor John Bel Edwards to sign it into law.
HB 707: EXPUNGEMENT
Getting an expungement is no easy feat. It costs a lot of time and money. HB 707, sponsored by Rep. Royce Duplessis, would automate the expungement process for low-level records. Specifically, (1) arrests that did not lead to conviction, (2) misdemeanors, 5 years since the end of the sentence, (3) felonies eligible for “first offender pardon,” (4) non-violent felonies, 10 years since the end of the sentence. The bill was heard in the Senate Committee on Finance Tuesday.
The legislation would require the Louisiana Bureau of Criminal Identification and Information to identify all records with a court’s final determination of a charge for individuals who are eligible for an expungement. Starting August 1, 2024, the bureau would send these records to the Louisiana Supreme Court Case Management Information System. Rep. Duplessis proposed a budget of $3 million dollars for the first year and $7.7 million over the course of five years. Sen. Fesi gave an amendment stating that in the second year a fee would be applied to the individual seeking the expungement. Once they got a job, it would come out of their income taxes to help pay for the expungement. According to Duplessis, the bill would impact 2.5 million records. The amendments were adopted and the bill was moved favorably.
Our public awareness campaign, pointing out the many flaws in this bill, has had an impact. A special shoutout is deserved for those incarcerated people who shared with us their views from the Inside, regarding their own fates and Jim Crow verdicts. The bill sponsor, Rep. Randall Gaines, sought to introduce amendments that would make the bill less damaging, and Rep. Royce Duplessis clearly articulated the problems with the parole process the District Attorneys have drafted for the legislature. Those amendments were voted down, and Rep. Gaines has not been able to find common ground with D.A.’s, who clearly hold a “veto power” within our legislative branch.
Today Rep. Gaines pulled HB 1077, killing the bill for this legislative session.
HB 517: Medical Advisory Committee
HB 517, by Rep. Larry Selders, was presented with no opposition in the Judiciary B Committee. The bill was reported favorably and will be voted on for final passage. HB 517 creates a Medical Advisory Committee within the DOC that will report quarterly to the Dept. of Health. Will Harrell, VOTE’s Policy Counsel, testified only to thank Rep. Selders and the DOC for working with VOTE on the bill. Harrell stated, “The version of the bill right now is scaled back significantly [from] when it was first filed, but we believe it’s still going to serve a great purpose [and] provide transparency to allow us to continue to work in collaboration with DOC to enhance medical services in our facilities.”
OUR CURRENTLY INCARCERATED MEMBERS REACT TO HB 1077
Legislators at the Louisiana Capitol have expressed various motivations regarding prison issues, including the current legal challenge regarding approximately 1500 people who languish in prison with non-unanimous convictions. Most of these people are currently sentenced until their death. The U.S. Supreme Court instructed Louisiana that retroactively reversing these (now universally recognized as) unconstitutional convictions is up to them, and both the legislature and courts have been called upon to act.
VOTE’s most recent email to legislators regarding HB 1077 invited them to visit people in prison and ask their views on the bill. And only yesterday, in a hearing regarding counting incarcerated people as “residents” of a district for the purpose of apportioning legislative power, several legislators expressed their close connection to the prisons. Rep. Lacombe, who represents 6000 residents confined in Angola, called them a part of the “community.” Rep. Deshotel, who represents people confined in two prisons in the Cottonport area mentioned his support for capital outlay projects (a.k.a. prison construction and repairs). Rep. Ivey explained how he hears from people in prison “all the time,” albeit via family members of the currently incarcerated. Rep. Gaines, who sponsored HB 1077, has expressed how he is trying to help the 1500 convicted through Jim Crow trials, and believes this bill, creating parole eligibility, may be the best we can do.
Despite all those declarations of community, we’ve heard no responses from lawmakers wishing to visit.