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Louisiana editorial roundup

May 16, 2018

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:

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May 16

The Times-Picayune says the right to vote can help keep offenders straight:

People convicted of a felony can vote in Louisiana after they leave prison, but only if they aren’t in the state’s custody — which includes former inmates who are on probation or parole.

That finally could be changing, though. The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee agreed May 14 to send House Bill 265 to the full Senate. The legislation by Rep. Patricia Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat, would allow ex-felons who are on parole or probation to register to vote after being out of prison for five years. They would have to provide documentation that they have abided by the terms of their release and haven’t been locked up again for a felony during those five years.

The bill has already passed the House, so it is one step from final passage. That would be a major victory for Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) and other advocates, who have worked for years to remove the voting prohibition.

“This shows the value of showing up,” said Norris Henderson, executive director of VOTE, who founded the group while he was in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. “We built a coalition, and the people we brought in brought in more people, more organizations, more political leaders. This final vote was a credit to the hard work of so many people, especially Representative Smith,” he said in a written statement after the House vote May 10.

It took three votes this session to get the bill out of the House. And the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee first rejected a motion to kill the legislation Monday before voting in favor of the bill. Now the full Senate should pass it.

The change would fit with the sentencing reforms the Legislature passed in 2017, which included more probation options and enhanced re-entry services for ex-inmates. The aim of the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Act is to reduce the number of people in prison, particularly for nonviolent crimes, and to provide more support services in communities.

It is a smart approach. The long sentences Louisiana handed out for minor crimes hasn’t made the state safer, it has only made us the world leader in incarceration. And it has unnecessarily fractured families and left them poorer.

Finding ways to help and encourage former inmates to stay out of prison is an important part of reform.

Whalen Gibbs, a former assistant secretary for the Louisiana Department of Corrections, argued in an April opinion piece for NOLA.com ′ The Times-Picayune that restoring the right to vote is one way to do that. “Not only is it morally right to give people a second chance, but voting helps meet our goal of successful reentry to the community after incarceration,” he said. The American Probation and Parole Association has found that former inmates who are allowed to vote are less likely to commit another offense, he said.

There is broad support for the change, including the probation and parole association, the Louisiana Council of Bishops and Louisianans for Prison Alternatives.

VOTE also is a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the restrictions on voting for ex-offenders as unconstitutional. That case, which is expected to be heard by the Louisiana Supreme Court later this year, will go forward because HB 265 won’t lift every prohibition.

But the legislation would make an important change for potentially thousands of people who are on probation and parole.

“Voting is one of the most important duties a citizen can have. When people can cast that vote, it makes them feel like equal members of society,” Mr. Gibbs said. “That feeling of wholeness, of truly having a voice, is a powerful tool for equality and integration that makes our democracy better.”

Being allowed to participate in that process is an essential piece of rehabilitation.

Online: http://www.nola.com

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May 16

The Houma Courier says voters will be able to right a wrong when it comes to the split-verdict law:

The Louisiana Legislature has moved forward a constitutional amendment that would remove a particularly ugly part of state law.

Voters will get to decide the fate of the proposal, which would strike down a law with a racist past and allow Louisiana to get in line with nearly every other state.

Only Louisiana and Oregon currently have laws that allow felony defendants to be convicted without unanimous jury decisions.

Instead, in an effort to nullify the power of black jurors, the state’s constitutional convention in 1898 created a provision that allows guilty verdicts in many felony trials even when three of 12 jurors voted not guilty. That requirement was later changed to 10, but the shameful past of the law is more than enough reason to question it and give voters the chance to change it.

The 1898 convention’s stated goal was to erode the political strength of black citizens. One of the ways the delegates did that was to ensure that even if several black people were on a jury, their white counterparts could still guarantee a conviction.

In Oregon, too, the strange allowance of non-unanimous verdicts has a racist past. And in that state, like our own, political leaders are seeking a change to a requirement that every other state has embraced.

To their credit, all our local representatives - Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, Truck Gisclair, D-Larose, Tanner Magee, R-Houma, Dee Richard, a Thibodaux independent, and Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma - voted in favor of sending the amendment to the voters. Local Sens. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, and Norby Chabert, R-Houma, also supported the measure. Ed Price, D-Gonzales, and Gary Smith, D-Norco, were absent for the final vote in the Senate.

Tellingly, the change drew praise from legislators and at least one civil rights organization.

“Louisianans now have the opportunity to change our state’s non-unanimous jury law, a policy that is rooted in racism and that consistently risks sending innocent people, most often from communities of color, to prison,” said Sarah Omojola, policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The time has come for Louisiana to join the rest of the nation and finally part ways with a throwback to a time when so many of our fellow citizens lacked basic rights - and when the government actively sought to take away those rights. The Legislature has now cleared the way for that process to take place.

Online: http://www.houmatoday.com

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May 16

The Advocate says there is no excuse for Louisiana lawmakers getting into a fist fight:

The story of two lawmakers who walk into a bar sounds like the start of a corny joke.

But laughs were apparently in short supply when two members of the Louisiana Legislature, state Rep. Stuart Bishop of Lafayette and state Sen. Norby Chabert of Houma, got into a fistfight at a downtown Baton Rouge bar the night of May 15.

Bishop and Chabert, both Republicans, apparently sparred over a dispute about some legislation earlier in the day. Police were called to the scene, but no arrests were made, according to media reports. Bishop told the Monroe News-Star that Chabert “punched me several times.” Bishop said he didn’t return the blows and was only bruised in the incident.

Both lawmakers have expressed regret over the incident, with Bishop apologizing to his fellow legislators on the House floor.

With the Legislature in constant session these days, tempers are bound to be ragged, though that’s no excuse for coming to blows. This is the kind of story that promises to go viral, cited as the latest evidence of the continuing decline in civility across America.

We’re encouraged, though, that Bishop and Chabert acknowledged the incident as a lapse in manners and apparently seem ready to move on.

That’s evidence, perhaps, that standards of private and personal conduct aren’t dead just yet.

Online: http://www.theadvocate.com

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