VOTE (Voice of the Experienced) and 2019 Goals for Criminal Justice Reform

Credit: VoteNOLA

“VOTE is a grassroots organization founded and run by formerly incarcerated people (FIP), our families and our allies. We are dedicated to restoring the full human and civil rights of those most impacted by the criminal (in)justice system.”

At their first 2019 monthly member meeting, VOTE focused their message on educating their membership about the process involved with creating reform in Louisiana’s criminal justice system.

Being their first 2019 membership meeting, VOTE leadership Will Harrell (Senior Public Policy Council) and John Burkhart (Criminal Justice Reform Field Director) lead members through a presentation of what it would take to create a movement, as their motto states, of going from “chains to change.”

A full house as an audience, members and potential new members watched a video, introducing them to the long, and many times arduous, process involved with taking a bill into law. Armed with a packet of material, Mr. Harrell made a point to make an example of House Bill HB265 (provides relative to registration and voting by a person convicted of a felony).  Harrell reported that the bill involved a nearly 30 step process. Harrell stated, “each time we get to one of these steps, we are proposing… and constantly talking to legislators to be on our side.”

When it comes to the process of taking a bill to law, it was encouraged for members to understand: sometimes the bill will fail multiple times before it passes. However, the civic engagement involved with VOTE can make all the difference. Members engage and challenge representatives to support reform efforts. Harrell says of HB265, “we flipped about 15 votes in 2 weeks!  Legislators who were not on our side, who didn’t want to touch this issue, were getting calls from their constituents. Frankly, so many people do not engage with the legislative process that, just to get about five calls really matters to these legislators.”

John Burkett with the Southern Poverty Law Center walked members through a scorecard that helped illustrate how their house representatives voted for various proposed legislation.  Burkett instructed, “53 is the number of votes needed to pass a bill.” Every vote counts and, many times, the persuasion involved with engagement is the only way to obtain the 53 votes needed. Phone calls and pressure on these representatives make all the difference.

Moving forward into 2019, VOTE has been warned by lobbyists to be cautious, tempering any aggressive expectations they may have for various legislative support. October 2019 consists of statewide elections for Governor and every legislative seat. Risky votes are not as welcomed in a season as such. Nevertheless, Burkett expressed, “we are an unprecedented movement in the history of this state.” They are determined, irregardless of the upcoming election season, to create changes.

Harrell addressed the 2019 agenda involved with prison alternatives, furthering the cause of unanimous juries, and future VOTE proposals.  Sentencing is an important part of their efforts. Curtis Davis, the founder of the Shreveport chapter of VOTE, served 26 years in Angola for a time he did not commit.  Curtis emphasized the disparity of being within the proximity of a situation that can loop a person unfairly into a sentence. He echoed previous sentiments about the power of VOTE as an organization: “we have the most vibrant social justice movement in the United States right now. I don’t care if this is an election year. They fear us!”

Royce Duplessis, one of the newest state representatives out of New Orleans (district 93), was present for the meeting. He encouraged members to press into the process of influencing legislative work. He let people know that their dedication matters and that he cares about the issues prevalent in their neighborhoods. He expressed the importance of the momentum of criminal justice reform in Louisiana as well as its broader effects. With the recently passed federal legislation bill, the First Step Act, he says, “I think the work that has been done in Louisiana added to the momentum on a national level.  I really believe that!” Many members in the audience concurred.

Nicole Nixon is a dedicated wife and mother who values leadership and business. Motivated by her husband and her son, she is vested in the empowerment and positive commercialization of black men in America. If you enjoyed this piece, you might want to check out her piece “A Mother’s Cry,” or her other articles here.

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