The 2022 Legislative Session Was Akin to a Dirty Election

Ronald Marshall speaks to VOTE members about the 2022 Legislative Session

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.

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State v. Reddick Oral Arguments: Our Takeaways

Reginald Reddick’s family and legal team address the media at the the Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday, May 10, 2022

The surprising part about the State’s argument in favor of keeping people convicted under Jim Crow juries is how poorly it was crafted and defended. However, those of us who have been fighting the system know, even those of us who help a wrongfully convicted person be released after decades, that the State need not craft good arguments. The judges defend the State already. So the question becomes:

Did any of the oral arguments matter?

Either way, here are some nuggets:

The State rested its case on two major points: (1) There are no watershed new rules, i.e. there is nothing groundbreaking to change in the realm of our criminal legal system. (2) The Legislature is crafting a remedy, so the Court need not do anything.

First, although a unanimous jury system may not be groundbreaking for the rest of the country, it is certainly a “watershed” here. The ballot amendment, and then the Ramos decision, resulted in hundreds of people having convictions overturned, and resetting the bar for the thousands of trials to come. The State’s argument here is extremely weak. Up until 1978, a DA only needed to convince 9 out of 12 people to convict, and then from 1978 to 2019 needed ten. Jumping all the way to 12 is massive, and only now does “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” mean anything. And as Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) lawyer Jamila Johnson pointed out, people are by our constitution: “Innocent until proven guilty.” Thus, “prove” is intended to have real meaning.

Second, the State lawyer repeatedly brought up HB 744, a bill that Chief Justice Weimer was clearly in the know about, a “compromise” remedy which would provide a possible parole option for the roughly 1500 people languishing behind bars because of non-unanimous juries. Just last week, Louisiana District Attorneys’ Association representative Loren Lampert assured the House Judiciary Committee that they would not argue to the Court that a remedy is on the way. As we noted in that judiciary committee hearing, moving HB 744 forward creates a false hope for everyone involved—including the LASC. And while Loren Lampert sat immediately behind the State’s lawyer, he didn’t make the 744 argument. His colleague did it for him.

Jamila responded with more realistic points: how late we are in the Legislative Session, how any bill would need to go through Appropriations, through the Senate, and likely need to return to the House for final passage. And quite importantly, how these “panels” never seem to work out anyway. More on HB 744—the False Hope bill—here

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Opinion: Nothing to Laugh About, Jailbirds New Orleans Makes a Mockery of the Incarcerated

At VOTE we stand by our commitment to amplify the voices of our currently and formerly incarcerated family. As Louisiana has once again ranked above all other states as the most incarcerated place in America, we see a stronger need to dispel any form of illusions as to what serving time looks like.

I did not want to watch a “scandalous” reality TV show that follows a handful of women over a few days in jail. I figured it would be a bunch of people yelling at each other, arguing over the phone, and some patronizing morality play on a mother with addiction. But when the show is set in our jail, here in New Orleans, which is under a federal consent decree and being run by a shady sheriff in a re-election campaign, it was sadly my duty to watch and review.

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