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In prison longer than any woman in Louisiana, and now recommended for clemency

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: In prison longer than any woman in Louisiana, and now recommended for clemency

  • Miami officials: Most people who owe fines and fees can vote

  • America’s new ‘Sheriff of the Year’ pushed to allow teachers to carry weapons in school 

  • Joe Biden’s criminal justice plan

  • Conviction integrity unit seeks new trial in St. Louis murder case marred by misconduct 

  • Criminal justice scholar asks why Los Angeles continues to be a death penalty hotspot

  • An argument against carceral responses to intimate partner violence

In the Spotlight

In prison longer than any woman in Louisiana, and now recommended for clemency 

This week, The Advocate reported on the case of Gloria Williams, also known as Mama Glo, and her win before the pardon board. Williams has been in prison longer than any other woman in Louisiana.  She is serving a life without parole sentence for second-degree murder for her role in a 1971 killing, committed when she was 25. She is now 73. The board issued a unanimous recommendation in favor of Williams’s life sentence being amended to make her eligible for parole.

The recommendation now goes before the governor for review. If Governor John Bel Edwards approves the commutation, Williams will then go before a parole committee to be considered for release. 

A 2017 report by the Sentencing Project highlighted the degree to which life and “virtual life” sentences factor into Louisiana’s high incarceration rate. Nearly 4,900 people in Louisiana were serving sentences of life without parole. Louisiana is one of only two states where the mandatory sentence for second-degree murder is life without parole. Over 6,000 were serving virtual life sentences, which are sentences long enough to guarantee death in prison. Combined, over 11,000 people, over 30 percent of the state’s prison population, were destined to die in prison. 

When it comes to women in prison, the state has the second-highest rate of women serving life. One in 7 women in Louisiana prisons are serving a life or virtual life sentence. Nationally, nearly 7,000 women are serving life or virtual life sentences.

Reforms that would make people serving life sentences eligible for parole consideration were considered during Louisiana’s 2017 criminal justice reforms but were not passed. The 2017 package was intended to address the state’s status as the most incarcerated place in the world. The bills that were passed, however, largely focused on nonviolent convictions. 

High rates of life sentences, very long sentences, and low rates of parole release plague Louisiana’s justice system. Last year, the ACLU Smart Justice campaign released its “Blueprint for Smart Justice” for the state, its proposals for reducing incarceration by 50 percent. The report notes that Louisiana is one of only a handful of states where adults serving life sentences are not eligible for parole. Close to a third of those sentenced to life without parole are in prison for crimes committed when they were younger than 25—in their teens or early 20s. 

In an opinion column for The Advocate in April, Alanah Odoms Hebert, the executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, described the 2017 reforms as a “historic first step.” (Odoms Hebert served as special counsel to the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, the team that developed the policy recommendations behind the criminal justice reforms package.) The most recent state Department of Corrections figures show the prison population has fallen to 31,756. But “Louisiana’s incarceration rate is still far above the national average,” Odoms Hebert wrote, “which means that taxpayers are still footing the bill for a bloated prison system that has devastated communities of color and failed to make us safer.”

Odoms Hebert identified two reforms as obvious places to start. The first was to make people serving life sentences in the state eligible for parole. Louisiana is one of only two states that mandate life without parole for people convicted of second-degree murder. This is, she wrote, “one reason why one in five people imprisoned in Louisiana is over the age of 50”—a rate of elder incarceration that has sizable fiscal costs without offering any meaningful public safety benefit. 

People sentenced to life in Louisiana prisons had reason to hope early in Governor Edwards’s tenure, in 2016. Last year, Kira Lerner reported for The Appeal that “in his first six months in office, Edwards commuted 22 sentences out of 56 sent to him with positive recommendation from the state’s Board of Pardons. Sixteen of the offenders whose applications he granted were serving life without parole.” Yet commutations of life sentences dried up by the end of 2016 amid political pushback, Lerner noted.

It remains to be seen whether Edwards will return to commutations as a tool for justice reform, for Mama Glo and thousands of others. 

Stories From The Appeal

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Miami Officials: Most People Who Owe Fines and Fees Can Vote. Lawyers and advocates in Miami-Dade County will roll out a new plan to counter the disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions. [Kira Lerner and Daniel Nichanian]

America’s New ‘Sheriff of the Year’ Pushed to Allow Teachers to Carry Weapons in School. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas County, Florida, is one of the state’s most controversial lawmen. [Jessica Pishko]

Stories From Around the Country

Joe Biden’s criminal justice plan: Yesterday, former Vice President Joe Biden released a criminal justice reform plan. It includes a $20 billion grant program to encourage states to reduce the use of incarceration, and calls for eliminating the death penalty (a reversal for Biden) and empowering the Department of Justice to hold police departments accountable for abuse. [German Lopez / Vox] On Twitter, law professor John Pfaff analyzes the presidential candidate’s plan, describing it as a mix of “some good pieces that deserve attention” but mostly “common traps” that people “really need to start avoiding.” Pfaff highlights the following proposals as positive, depending on the details, which this plan largely does not provide:  expanding pattern-and-practice oversight to prosecutors’ offices, investing in public defense, making prison conditions more humane, and making housing available to people returning home from prison. But too many of the other proposals, Pfaff writes, “just reinforce why we are in this mess in the first place,” such as limiting a clemency proposal to nonviolent and drug offenses and focusing on incarceration for drug convictions. And there are some notable omissions, regarding the power of law enforcement unions and prison gerrymandering. [John Pfaff / Twitter]

Conviction integrity unit seeks new trial in St. Louis murder case marred by misconduct: In a motion filed Monday, arguing for a new trial in the case of Lamar Allen Johnson, the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office has said that Johnson’s 1995 conviction for murder was tainted by “prosecutorial misconduct, perjury, hidden evidence and secret payments made by police to the key witness,” according to Tony Messenger’s column in St. Louis Today. The office, led by Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, is seeking a new trial and in their motion arguing Johnson’s innocence, prosecutors described Johnson’s conviction as a “perversion of justice.” The case was brought to the office’s new conviction integrity unit by Johnson’s attorney and the Midwest Innocence Project. An investigation identified numerous serious errors, including the identification of Johnson by an eyewitness who later said the police coerced him into identifying Johnson, even though the people who carried out the shooting were wearing ski masks and he could not see their faces. Gardner established the conviction integrity unit after receiving a federal grant funding her office and the Midwest Innocence Project at the end of last year. [Tony Messenger / St. Louis Today]

Criminal justice scholar asks why Los Angeles continues to be a death penalty hotspot: Last week, more than 75 legal professors and scholars wrote an open letter “calling for Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey to end the county’s costly and racially-biased death penalty practice.” The letter highlighted that “Los Angeles County produces more death sentences than anywhere else in the country” and that Lacey has continued to pursue the death penalty even after California Governor Gavin Newsom instituted a moratorium on executions this year. Writing in the Los Angeles Daily News this week, one of those legal scholars, Priscilla Ocen of Loyola Law School, asks why Los Angeles is “abusing the outdated and biased practice of capital punishment,” even though “violent crime is at a historic low.” A report relased last month by the ACLU “shows that out of the 22 death penalty verdicts during DA Lacey’s tenure, eight defendants had lawyers who were previously or subsequently disbarred, suspended or charged with misconduct.” [Priscilla Ocen / Los Angeles Daily News]

An argument against carceral responses to intimate partner violence: Leigh Goodmark, a law professor and activist, writes in the New York Times that even as many aspects of the criminal legal system have been subjected to intense scrutiny, “legislators have been doubling down on the system when it comes to domestic violence.” There is an implication, she writes, that “crimes of violence, and particularly domestic violence, should be exempt from criminal justice reform.” Yet this is not justified by the evidence, given that in the last decade intimate partner violence and homicides have gone up, despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on criminal legal system responses. What we know, Goodmark argues, is that “arrest and prosecution exacerbate conditions associated with intimate partner violence, which strongly correlates with poverty” and prison contributes to traumatization, which contributes to violence. [Leigh Goodmark / New York Times]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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