Despite a last-ditch effort to overturn a recent bill restoring voting rights to ex-felons in Louisiana, legislators in the Statehouse recently passed a bill doing just that, another victory for criminal-justice reform.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that of the 70,000 ex-felons who served time in Louisiana prisons and who are currently on probation or parole, between 2,000 and 3,000 would be affected by the new legislation.
Last week, House Bill 265, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Smith (D-Baton Rouge), an African American, barely passed in a 54-42 vote, getting just one more vote than what was needed for it to advance to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who said last week that he would sign the bill into law.
However, Smith says that many of her colleagues received phone calls from individual district attorneys asking them to vote against the reform.
In Justice Today reports that Louisiana currently has the country’s highest incarceration rate and the second-highest exoneration rate per capita, most of those cases due to police or prosecutorial misconduct (emphasis ours). Louisiana DAs, who are elected by the people, have earned a well-deserved reputation for misconduct.
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In fact, it was a Louisiana man who was the plaintiff in a 2011 Supreme Court case in which the high court ruled 5–4 (in a decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas) that prosecutors had absolute immunity from lawsuits. The man, John Thompson, had been convicted of capital murder but was later exonerated; it makes sense, then, that these elected “public servants” would want to continue to enjoy that type of blanket protection, even when they act unethically, or even illegally.
There are two bills aimed at curbing some of their absolute power, according to IJT:
The first bill, known as the Prosecutorial Transparency Bill, establishes an oversight commission that would collect data from each district attorney’s office and make the information available to the public. The second, called the John Thompson Prosecutorial Accountability and Professional Standards Bill, would set up an 11-member commission with the power to investigate the acts of prosecutors, including calling witnesses, issuing subpoenas, and making findings of fact. The commission would also be able to issue reports and recommend impeachment proceedings against specific prosecutors for cause.
Unsurprisingly, E. Pete Adams, the executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said that such initiatives were “not well thought out” and “blatantly unconstitutional.”
As for the felony-voting bill, state Rep. Smith reportedly pumped her fists in the air and gave high-fives to her colleagues on the Louisiana House floor after it passed. She was joined on the floor during the vote by ex-felon Checo Yancy, director of Voters Organized to Educate, who spent 20 years of a life sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola before his sentence was commuted by Gov. Edwin W. Edwards in 2003.
There was bipartisan, as well as outside, support for the bill, including from New Orleans Saints players Demario Davis and Ben Watson.
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Once Gov. Bel Edwards, a Democrat, endorses the bill, the change will take effect on March 1, 2019.