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.

Continue reading The 2022 Legislative Session Was Akin to a Dirty Election

Sine Die & LGBTQ+ Youth in Prisons

“Adjournment sine die is the conclusion of a meeting by a deliberative assembly, such as a legislature or organizational board, without setting a day to reconvene.” So, what’s next?

Legislative Updates

HB 707: EXPUNGEMENT / CLEAN SLATE

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.

Continue reading Sine Die & LGBTQ+ Youth in Prisons

It’s the Final Week of This Legislative Session!

Legislative Updates

HB 517: MEDICAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE

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.

Continue reading It’s the Final Week of This Legislative Session!

No More 10-2 Verdicts!

Louisiana needs to revisit non-unanimous jury convictions. Read on to see what we’re up against.

Legislative Session Updates

NON-UNANIMOUS JURY RETROACTIVITY

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.

Continue reading No More 10-2 Verdicts!

Voices from Inside: 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. Here is a sampling of what they would hear from people actually locked away without a key.  [formatted for clarity]

Keith A.

“Now, to express the general sentiments of those incarcerated, concerning the DEATH BILL HB 1077. 

Most of the 10-2’ers I’ve talked to are not only opposed to, but in utter disbelief by the sham that the legislature is attempting to enact by this bill. Here are some viewpoints: 

  • The Special Committee on Parole amounts to a 13th juror, or basically a retrial of our cases. 
  • The impaneling of members: 
    • Three retired judges- what will be their political slant? (will the Governor consider or be prohibited from considering Ret. Justice B. Johnson?) 
    • One retired District Attorney- will this selection be from one of the parishes that is against granting relief of non-unanimous juries? 
    • One retired public defender- after finding that the IDB [Indigent Defender Board] was unconstitutionally ineffective, could a petitioner elect to hire a private attorney for adequate representation?
  • Section F(1)(e) stipulates that the DA will be permitted to file a written response to the petitioner’s application. Will the petitioner be allowed to submit a Brief in Support of his PCR, or traverse the state’s rebuttal? 
  • Section 2(b) allows for any testimony of the petitioner or victim. Will this infringe upon the petitioner’s 6th Amendment right to confrontation and cross – examination? 
  • Miscarriage of Justice is clearly established by the non-unanimous jury verdict itself. 
  • Vote for parole. * 3/5 for non-lifers * 5/5 for lifers. Why the disparity of votes for the same finding of erroneous application of the law? 
  • Submit entirety of records: An extra burden on petitioner. * costs (upward of $300 for transcripts) * time of obtaining documents will toll the time period for filing for parole. 
  • Section 2 stipulates that “The provisions of this Act shall terminate either three years after the effective date of this Act or upon a ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court that the holding in Ramos v. La. is retroactive. * If this board will be terminated in 3 years, by mathematical assumption, this Board will have to review; * 1500 cases in 36 months; * 500 cases a year; * 42 cases a month; * 10 cases a week; * 2 cases a day. Albeit, this will be in lieu of reviewing court documents that are on the average of 500-800 pages a case. Can these “Super-Justices”, with legal clarity; review, discuss, deliberate, and decide the fate of two cases a day, every week, every month, for three consecutive years? 
Continue reading Voices from Inside: Our Currently-Incarcerated Members React to HB 1077

The Reddick Case, Criminalizing Abortion, & More!

Legislative Session Updates

NON-UNANIMOUS JURY / THE REGINALD REDDICK CASE

In 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that its decision in Ramos v. Louisiana held that the Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous jury verdict to convict someone—does not apply to those who were wrongly convicted before that decision.

Tuesday, May 10th, the LA Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Reddick v. Louisiana, the case to determine whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ramos decision should apply retroactively to people convicted by Jim Crow juries.

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 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.

Within the State’s argument that we lack the resources to provide new trials for 1500 people, they said: “only about 50-100 people are actually innocent.” Let that sink in. They did not propose how to figure out who those 50 to 100 people are (typically, this is only done through a trial). They merely said that constitutional trials should not be required for people already convicted. Considering that someone who is wrongfully convicted can obtain up to $500,000 from the State, perhaps they see it as a cost savings move to not pay out $50 Million dollars to them? 

The Court will now talk amongst themselves. We should not expect a ruling prior to the Legislative Session concluding. Read our full analysis here.

Continue reading The Reddick Case, Criminalizing Abortion, & More!

Louisiana DAs: The Unification of State Powers & Non-Unanimous Jury Retroactivity

A page from the official journal of the proceedings of the Constitutional convention of the state of Louisiana, held in New Orleans, Tuesday, February 8, 1898, published in New Orleans, and printed by H.J. Hearsey

Drawing up the documents to forge American democracy was an often fraught process—the many disagreements of the framers can be found in the Federalist Papers of John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, and the personal writings of people such as Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. Despite those disagreements, and the amended Bill of Rights that came soon thereafter, several key principles were without controversy; one of which is the “Separation of Powers” that creates our three branches of government who are designed to provide “checks and balances” on each other.

The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.

—James Madison, The Federalist Papers

The Legislative Branch, being the representative voice of the people, would create the laws. The Executive Branch, headed by an elected Chief Executive, faithfully carries out the will of the people. The Judicial Branch makes the wise rulings, including whether the Executive oversteps their authority, or if the legislature creates unconstitutional laws.

In Louisiana, the Executive Branch is represented by a term-limited Governor, along with district attorneys and sheriffs who are not term-limited. The DAs have a legislative lobby called the Louisiana District Attorneys Association (LDAA), and the sheriffs have a legislative lobby as well. These two groups are currently represented by Loren Lampert and Mike Renatza, respectively. These lobbying groups are the most powerful political forces in Louisiana. They write laws and amendments to other proposed laws. Nothing is passed over their objections.

The term-limited legislators consistently explain that they will follow the lead of their local district attorney and local sheriff, rather than follow the lead of their constituents. When a bill was proposed to term-limit sheriffs, the only testimony against the proposal were sheriffs themselves, not voters. The defense of no-limits was that voters could simply choose to unelect a 20-year incumbent, as though mounting a victorious campaign is so simple, particularly against a figure universally accepted as the most powerful political official in a parish, with the power to raise their own monies and who are not accountable to any oversight.

The U.S. Supreme Court was needed to declare Louisiana’s non-unanimous juries unconstitutional. After well over a century of district attorneys using this Jim Crow tool, which was explicitly created to ensure White Supremacy (a fact spelled out in the all-white Constitutional Convention of 1898, and universally accepted today), the LDAA fought the demise of 10-2 verdicts every step of the way. They fight it still. They, along with the Attorney General, will argue to the Louisiana Supreme Court that this unconstitutional tool (used only by two overtly discriminating states) should keep the fruits of their unjust labor.  They will argue that every person still alive who was victimized by this tool should stay convicted. Case closed.

Continue reading Louisiana DAs: The Unification of State Powers & Non-Unanimous Jury Retroactivity

The Final Week of the COVID-19 Legislative Session

As the legislative session winds down, it has become very clear that this is not just an emergency session for COVID-related bills. The final week of this session looks like any other, with bills covering a wide range of topics. 

ACTION ALERT: HB 643, HB 529 all need to get a hearing in Senate Judiciary C this week! Call and email Chairman Franklin Foil asking him to put the bills on the agenda TODAY! 225-342-6777 / foilf@legis.la.gov

Here are some of the bills we’ve been following this session, covering Prison Conditions, Supervision and Discrimination, and Medical Marijuana: 

Continue reading The Final Week of the COVID-19 Legislative Session

How to be a Successful Advocate at the Capitol in 4 Easy Steps

This legislative session we’re introducing our most ambitious line up of bills yet. In order to win them, we need to show up at the Capitol as one strong and unified voice. That means we need more people with direct experiences of incarceration to speak up and speak out about the injustices they have faced. How? Check out these tips for successful advocacy, which work whether we’re sitting in one-on-one meetings with our elected officials, testifying in front of legislative committees, or making a speech in front of an audience on the Capitol steps.

1. Be prepared and brief.
We can expect all types of questions about our bills from both our supporters and the opposition. On top of that, we usually only have a few minutes of a legislator’s time to gain their support. We need to know what we’re going to say and be brief with it! Instead of writing out a full script (which can sound too practiced or, worse, fake) we like to make a list of two or three main points to really hit home, sandwiched by a short introduction and conclusion. Legislators hear so many people speak about bills every day, so use a strong opening statement to really grab their attention. For example, the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana is lobbying for bill HB 344, which would ban prisons from putting pregnant women and people with mental illness in solitary confinement. In practicing her testimony for HB 344, which would ban the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women and people with mental illness, Shametria Gonzales opened with, “Ending solitary confinement isn’t only a moral issue, it’s a bipartisan issue.” This hard-hitting and concise phrase sets the tone for a powerful testimony.

2. Be honest.
Our credibility is central to our relationships at the Capitol, so being honest in our conversations and testimonies is a must. There will be times when legislators ask tough questions about the facts of a bill. There’s no need to make something up or exaggerate anything. When we don’t know the answer, the best response we can offer is, “I’m not sure, I’ll find out and get back to you quickly.” Of course, our lived experiences are also our truth, and legislators who have never been incarcerated themselves need to hear them. As long as we stick to what we know, we will be successful. 

3. Be respectful. 
Speaking of relationships: keep it real, but be respectful. This helps us form new alliances and maintain the old. Even though there are many legislators who might not understand or respect our movement, we never know who’s watching. For example, during committee hearings, it can be tempting to get up to the podium and clap back at a representative or senator who’s not on our side. But if we attack one legislator, we can lose the important votes of their friends that we need to get our bill passed. Phrases like “great question, let me explain” and “I can see where you’re coming from, but” go a long way towards making legislators feel heard, while not compromising our truth or integrity. Challenge the idea, not the person communicating it. Finding a shared value goes a long way, too.

4. Be yourself.
The best thing we can do is to bring our whole selves with us to the Capitol. The building’s halls and chambers are filled with lobbyists who may be great at rattling off facts and figures, but they don’t know much about our lived experiences, if anything. As a community, that’s our greatest asset. “[VOTE] is bringing the directly impacted people,” says Rep. Ted James, the new Chairman of the Justice Committee. “Our personal stories are what move people and the needle.” This work can be tiring and make us want to not share what we know, but just remember that we all have each other’s backs. When we go to the Capitol as a Blue Wave, it’s not just to fight injustice, but to lean on each other in the process, too.

Ready to get engaged? 
Got all of the above down pat? Find a bill (or two or five) that you have experience with and get in touch about testifying. A few bill examples from the 2020 Session include:

HB 380 will ensure that someone who is offered a plea deal will be told all of the consequences they’ll face by agreeing to it. If you’ve ever taken a plea bargain and were not fully told ahead of time about how it would affect your ability to find a job, housing or go to school, this bill is for you.

HB 339 will give all incarcerated people, including lifers, a chance to go before the parole board and be considered for release. If you know someone doing life, or were once doing life yourself but got out on a new law, we need to hear from you!

The Fair Chance in Hiring Bill will reduce the number of barriers employers are allowed to set up against people with convictions. Right now, many job applications from people with convictions are tossed out as soon as the employer finds out about it. If this bill passes, employers will only be allowed to reject the application if the conviction is related to the job. “This bill would make it possible for people like me to get more than a minimum-wage job,” says Kisha Edwards, of The First 72+. If you’re in the same boat as Kisha, please consider testifying on this bill!

If you have experience with any of the issues we’re tackling this session, your story can help us win. Drop us a note at admin@vote-nola.org and we’ll get you prepared to testify when the time comes!

This Session, Let’s Strengthen Our Collective Voice

In fall 2018, former State Representative Naomi Farve visited Voters Organized to Educate Policy Director Checo Yancy (left) and our Founder and Executive Director Norris Henderson (right). In 1985, she was the first state legislator to sponsor a bill drafted by people serving life at Angola.

In the mid 1980s, our Founder and Executive Director was part of the Lifers Club at Angola State Penitentiary–a group of men who were told they’d never have a chance to come home. Refusing to accept this fate, they started to do research. Together the Lifers wrote to other people doing life in 10 Southern states, asking about their sentencing laws and reform. To the club’s surprise, they got responses indicating that so many states were fighting for the same reforms as our leader and his friends. They used the letters to draft a legislative bill that aimed to reduce the sentences of people serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Hungry for change, they were disappointed to learn that they needed a legislator to sponsor and file the bill for them. So they wrote to Louisiana state lawmakers, but this time they didn’t get many letters back. Shortly thereafter, Henderson was sharing about feeling dismayed at the Lifers’ monthly meeting, which certain people on the outside were allowed to attend. When he had finished speaking, a woman sitting in the front row stood up. “My name is Naomi White Warren,” she said. “I’m a newly-elected state representative from New Orleans, and I’ll take your bill on for you.” The Lifers’ stories, voices, and perseverance inspired Rep. Warren (now Farve) to join their fight for freedom. “The excitement in the prison was off the chain,” says Henderson. Unfortunately, as that year’s legislative session went on, it was clear that the bill wouldn’t pass. Yet the bill was still a huge success, not only because it finally passed many years later, but because it was the first time in VOTE’s history that our people–the ones closest to the problem–organized to the point of changing the entire trajectory of their lives. Today we carry on this legacy by fighting for more bills and more reform at the Capitol. Every year, our collective voice gets stronger. Here’s what we’re fighting for this year, and how you can join us.

Continue reading This Session, Let’s Strengthen Our Collective Voice