Showing posts with label Louisiana. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Louisiana. Show all posts

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Louisiana will face lawsuit over Ten Commandments school displays

By Greg LaRose

Four civil liberties groups will sue the state of Louisiana after Republican Gov. Jeff Landry signed a law Wednesday that calls for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in school classrooms. The new rule applies to any school that accepts state money, including colleges and universities.

The American Civil Liberties Union, its Louisiana chapter, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom from Religion Foundation announced they intend to file a lawsuit to block enforcement of House Bill 71. The measure, authored by Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, requires the Ten Commandments be displayed in each classroom. The poster or framed document dimensions must be at least 11 inches by 14 inches.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Louisiana might tap into state savings to build more juvenile correctional facilities

Louisiana legislative leaders are giving thought to withdrawing money from a state savings account to build and refurbish juvenile justice facilities around the state. 

Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, filed legislation this week to allow lawmakers to withdraw up to $400 million from Louisiana’s Revenue Stabilization Trust Fund before July 1, 2025. Juvenile justice campuses would be prioritized if they tap into the money, said House Speaker Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, and state Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Louisiana lawmakers want Ten Commandments in all public school classrooms

By Greg LaRose 

Louisiana public schools would be required to display the Ten Commandments under legislation that advanced Thursday from committee, despite a limited history of such displays passing muster with the U.S. Constitution.  

Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haugton, and Sen. Adam Bass, R-Bossier City, co-authors of House Bill 71, told members of the House Committee on Education they believe their proposed law would survive court challenges. 

Efforts to set similar requirements in other states have not succeeded, with lawmakers in Texas and South Carolina falling short last year. A comparable bill is under consideration in Arizona. The chief obstacle to such proposals has been the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits any law and government action from standing up an official state religion.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2022 has given new hope to those who want the Ten Commandments publicly displayed. In the case Kennedy v. Bremerton, justices ruled in favor of a Washington state high school football coach who was fired for praying at midfield and allowing students to join him after football games. Joseph Kennedy was reinstated after conservative justices prevailed in a 6-3 decision, saying the post game prayers do not amount to a school endorsement of Christianity. 

Mississippi attorney Ronald Hackenberg, who accompanied Bass and Horton at the committee meeting, said the Kennedy ruling benefited from justices disregarding standards that have been applied since the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman. Known as the Lemon test, the principles are used to determine whether a law or government violates the First Amendment.

In the Kennedy case, the justices looked at the history of rulings regarding the Establishment Clause and interpreted the intent of the Constitution’s authors rather than rely on the Lemon test, Hackenberg said.

“Both Representative Horton and I believe it will withstand legal and judicial scrutiny, as well as this bill is the first of its kind since the fall of the Lemon law [sic]. We hope it will serve as an example to the rest of the country,” Bass said.

Hackenberg told the committee he was affiliated with the Pacific Justice Institute. The organization has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-LGBTQ+ stances. Its founder, Brad Dacus, has claimed gay marriage leads to polygamy and incest, among other falsehoods. 

What is the Lemon test?

The U.S. Supreme Court has traditionally used a three-part test to determine whether a law or government agency oversteps the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of a state religion. The standards, known as the Lemon test, say government can assist religion only if:

  1. the primary purpose of the assistance is secular; 
  2. the assistance must neither promote nor inhibit religion; and 
  3. there is no excessive entanglement between church and state.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana opposes House Bill 71. Its advocacy strategist A’Niya Robinson said in an interview that specifics of the Kennedy case aren’t applicable to the legislation being considered. The coach’s prayer after games fell outside his responsibilities as a school employee, and students weren’t required to participate, she explained.

The Horton-Bass proposal would place students, who are compelled to attend school, in a difficult position as a captive audience forced to consume Christian doctrine, according to Robinson. Public schools also offer students access to religious concepts and teachings through world religion and certain social studies courses, she said. In addition, books of faith are available at school libraries, and students are free to engage in religious activities through extracurricular groups.

“One of the things that the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they came up with the First Amendment was that religious freedom only flourishes if people have breathing room to decide what religious beliefs, if any, that they want to follow,” Robinson said.

The education committee voted 10-3 to send Horton’s bill to the full House. Rep. Barbara Freiberg, R-Baton Rouge, cast one of the no votes, having questioned whether the Ten Commandments was representative of all faiths. Rep. Sylvia Taylor, D-Reserve, joined nine Republicans in support of the bill. 

This is Horton’s second foray into required displays linked to religion. Last year, she and Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, received approval for a bill to put “In God We Trust” signs in every classroom, and Gov. John Bel Edwards signed it into law.

Like that proposal, the Ten Commandments would have to be displayed on a poster or framed document that is at least 11 by 14 inches and “be printed in a large, easily readable font.”

The specific verbiage for displaying the commandments is spelled House Bill 71. It allows, but doesn’t require, schools and their management boards to spend their own money on the displays or accepted donated versions.

This article originally appeared in the Louisiana Illuminator on April 4th, 2024

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Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Legislature approves $26M in spending during crime session. Here’s where the money’s going.

By Greg Larose

It was difficult for lawmakers and fiscal experts to pinpoint an exact cost of the stricter crime prevention measures Republican Gov. Jeff Landry called on the Louisiana Legislature to approve during a special session on criminal justice policy that concluded Thursday. 

Just how many more people will be incarcerated and how much longer they will stay in prison as a result of the new laws is a moving target, meaning so is the price tag.   

But what we do know is that legislators approved nearly $26 million in spending in an  appropriations bill authored by Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, the top budget architect in the Louisiana House. He and other GOP members of the Legislature countered arguments from Democrats that the unforeseen cost of higher incarceration rates won’t be justified. 

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Bill to make juvenile crime records public advances to Louisiana House


Juvenile crime once again took center stage at the State Capitol as a bill that would publicize the confidential court records of young people accused of crimes moved forward to the Louisiana State House.

The Administration of Criminal Justice Committee approved the proposed legislation 13-1 Wednesday, just one day after a Senate committee greenlit a bill that would lower the age teens can be tried as adults from 18 to 17.

House Bill 1 by Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, would create a “Truth and Transparency” program to require clerks of court to provide public electronic access to some criminal court records of teenagers accused of serious crimes, including their names.

The public information would include but not be limited to the name of the defendant, arrest details, custody or bail decisions, and court dates, among other facts associated with the case.

Most youth criminal case records are currently confidential in Louisiana.

A similar bill introduced last year by Rep. Debbie Villio was dogged by accusations of racism as it proposed a two-year pilot program focusing on three majority-Black parishes: Caddo, East Baton Rouge and Orleans. Last year’s bill passed the House but ultimately died in the Senate; the bill lacked funding to enable parishes to implement the initiative. Bacala said his new bill will be funded through a fee collected by the Louisiana Clerks Remote Access Authority.

The juvenile records bill was introduced as part of a special session on crime called by Gov. Jeff Landry that started this week and will run through March 6. The newly elected governor made juvenile crime a key issue throughout his campaign and during a speech he gave Monday to open the session.

“These juveniles are not innocent children any longer; they are hardened criminals,” Landry said during his comments before the Legislature. “They violently attack our citizens, our law enforcement officers, and even our juvenile correction officers without hesitation.”

During the debate on Bacala’s bill, supporters of the measure included the mothers and grandmothers of crime victims who were fatally shot or left permanently disabled. Sheralyn Price, whose son Brandon “Boogie B” Montrell was shot to death in 2022, pushed back against those who voiced concerns about privacy.

“If your kid’s name is splattered all over the internet, you won’t have to pick out a casket. You won’t have to plan a funeral,” Price told committee members. “My child is dead. … I buried him in the last gift I gave him for Christmas, his Saints jersey.”

In 2019, Darrelle Scott, was shot and paralyzed by 13-year-old Lynell Reynolds, who was later found guilty and sentenced to remain in state custody until the age of 21. Scott’s grandmother, Dorothy White, told lawmakers that making the public aware of the extensive criminal histories of juveniles might spare someone from suffering the same fate as Scott.

“We must hold these juveniles accountable,” White said during Wednesday’s hearing. “This is not about Black and white. It’s not about Democrats and Republicans. It’s about our lives, our safety. We have to go out and tell the public. We need to put the names out. We need the faces out.”

Opponents of Bacala’s bill warned that the goal of the criminal justice system is to rehabilitate juveniles. The bill’s critics argued that publicizing the names of young defendants, especially of those later found to be innocent, will make it harder, if not impossible for them to get a job, housing, or even go to college.

“For juveniles who are adjudicated and are not convicted, that has an extremely serious impact on them in their future,” said Sarah Whittington, an attorney with the Justice and Accountability Center. “It is not the same as losing a child. It is not the same as losing a family member. I am not making that correlation. But it will follow that child forever.”

Others noted that the law already requires the courts and district attorneys to provide information to victims and their families, but in many cases they are failing to do so. Instead of passing legislation that might harm children, the state should ensure that prosecutors are following the existing law, said Natalie Sharp, an investigator with the Promise of Justice Initiative.

“I recently spoke with a person whose brother was shot and killed in the 1990s. They never even knew that an arrest had been made, let alone that someone had been incarcerated for decades,” Sharp said. “The prosecutor never took the time to speak with them.”

Despite later voting in favor of Bacala’s proposal, Rep. Alonzo Knox, D-New Orleans, said the bill would not prevent or deter crime. Knox warned that publicizing the names of youths suspected of shooting or killing someone could lead to retaliation, causing “chaos in the streets.”

“I think that’s an unintended consequence, that many of my colleagues sitting up here don’t know and realize about our community,” Knox said, referring to the majority-white committee. “And when I say our community, let me specify and be clear if there’s any doubt: in my Black community, in my district of New Orleans. When this goes out, and someone’s actually not guilty, we’re going to have some serious unintended consequences.”

Bacala defended his bill as being about one thing: transparency.

“If I have a son or daughter who’s murdered, and someone is arrested who happens to be a juvenile, should I have the ability to see what’s happening with the case?” Bacala said.

Ashley Hamilton, director of policy with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, rejected Bacala’s argument, saying the public’s money would be better spent on programs helping disadvantaged children who might resort to violence.

Hamilton told the committee members she spoke from experience, noting that yesterday would have been her sister’s 31st birthday.

In 2021, Hamilton’s sister was murdered. Knowing the killer’s identity has not brought her family any comfort, Hamilton said.

“What does bring me comfort is being in a community, with organizations … working tooth and nail with limited resources to ensure disadvantaged children have the support they need to prevent things like this from happening, and to build healthy and productive adults. Any money we have, put it there.”

Rep. Joy Walters, D-Shreveport, was the lone vote against the bill.

This article originally appeared in Verite on February 22nd, 2024. 

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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

New sheriff in town: Gov. Jeff Landry ready to reverse Edwards’ criminal justice policy

BY:  - FEBRUARY 19, 2024 

Longer sentences, more executions and harsher penalties for juveniles. These are among the proposals Gov. Jeff Landry wants the Republican-supermajority Louisiana Legislature to approve in a special session on crime. 

The self-styled, tough-on-crime GOP governor also wants to allow people to carry concealed firearms without a permit, place more police in New Orleans, expanded immunity for law enforcement and provide more public access to juvenile records. 

In his speech Monday to lawmakers to start the session, Landry said he’s thinking of victims. 

“Today, I ask you to place the voices of the tired, the weary and the broken-hearted victims of crime in this state above the irresponsible rhetoric that is destroying our quality of life,” Landry said. 

The governor’s requests, and others from far-right lawmakers, amount to a near-complete rollback of Louisiana’s 2017 criminal justice overhaul under former Gov. John Bel Edwards. That bipartisan effort was meant to save the state money by reducing its nation-leading incarceration rate, shortening non-violent criminal sentences and providing flexibility on parole. 

Landry opposed those measures as attorney general and is seizing his first opportunity as governor to roll back the changes. 

“As attorney general, I warned that the goal of criminal justice reform should not be about letting people out of jail, but how to keep people from going to jail,” Landry said. “Those warnings went unheeded.” 

Edwards’ criminal justice reinvestment initiative resulted in the state spending millions less on incarceration and using some of that money for crime victim services. The proposals from Landry and Republican legislators could undo those savings and perhaps cost the state additional money. 

A proposal that Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, a former prosecutor, has submitted would effectively eliminate parole in Louisiana, except for groups from whom it is constitutionally required — including those sentenced to life terms as juveniles. 

Villio’s House Bill 9 could cost the state more than $14 million annually, according to a fiscal note generated by the Legislative Fiscal Office. 

Landry said fiscal impact shouldn’t be the deciding factor for lawmakers. 

“While many say focus on the cost, I say focus on the cost to society. I say focus on the cost to our citizens in loss of property, in the disruption of their lives and in the irreparable tragedy of losing a loved one,” the governor said. 

In the audience for Landry’s speech at the State Capitol were victims of violent crime, relatives of murder victims and law enforcement leaders. The governor told the Legislature these three groups represent his priorities.

“The propensity of some to signal their virtuous compassion for criminals has become a liberal custom to many, without forethought of the consequences to society and the danger it creates in our neighborhoods and homes,” Landry said. 

While the governor insisted criminal justice reform should be about preventing crime, he offered few proposals addressing this aim.  

“Every proposal that his team has put forward is reactive. None of it will help to reduce crime and keep our community safe,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Matthew Willard said at a press conference after Landry’s speech. 

“If we want to talk about addressing crime, we need to talk about mental health, substance use disorder, reentry programs and eliminating barriers for kids coming home from prison so that they can successfully reintegrate into society,” Willard added. 

Democrats noted none of their members were consulted in putting together the call for the special session, resulting in an agenda in which few bipartisan measures will even be discussed. 

Along with a lack of bipartisanship came a lack of transparency, Democrats argued — despite Landry’s overtures toward openness in his speech. 

“The lack of transparency in our criminal justice system is unacceptable,” Landry said. 

House Republicans moved to suspend the rules on each of their proposals, allowing them to be heard in committee the next day. Despite Democratic objection, Republicans used their supermajority to fast-track the bills. That means the public will have less time to process a serious policy proposal, Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, said. 

The Landry-backed bill to expand the methods by which Louisiana executes people also limits transparency. 

House Bill 6, by Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, would add electrocution and nitrogen gas inhalation to the acceptable methods of execution. It also shields all records related to the execution, including which companies provide execution drugs and how much they cost, from public disclosure. If anybody were to leak those records, they could face jail time. 

Louisiana banned use of the electric chair in 1991, when it was last used, in favor of lethal injection.  

Landry’s vision of transparency involves public access to juvenile justice records that are typically shielded to protect minors’ right to privacy. 

“Our transparency legislation will allow people to access this information and provide online access to the data from our criminal and juvenile courts,” Landry said. “Through this simple and common-sense measure, we hope to ease the suffering of victims, offer more transparency in the legal process, and find better solutions to our crime problem.” 

Democrats say the proposal would punish children who commit offenses well into their adulthood. 

“We don’t want to penalize juveniles by having those records public and having them exposed as adults for something that they did in childhood,” Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, said. 

This article originally appeared in Louisiana Illuminator on February 19th, 2023. 

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Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Bland gubernatorial election threatens to suppress voter turnout

In Saturday’s (Oct. 14) statewide election primary, many voters seem uninterested. To project turnout on election day, political analysts examine turnout during the early voting period. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, at the close of early voting, counting both in-person and mail-in voters, 344,878 had voted. For comparison, in 2019 during the last gubernatorial primary, 386,468 early voted. While mail-in ballots will continue to trickle in until Friday, so far, this is a drop off of 41,590, or about 11 percent. 

In the 2019 primary, Black voters made up 97,990 of the early vote total. This year, Black voters make up 90,118, or about 26 percent of the early vote total so far. Black voters make up about 31 percent of the total electorate. Many are surprised that we have not seen stronger Black turnout yet, since one of the major candidates, Shawn Wilson, is Black.

In the 2019 primary, turnout was about 46 percent. Before the start of early voting, the Secretary of State’s Office projected a primary turnout of between 42 and 46 percent. However, based on the lower-than-expected actual early vote numbers coming in now, many analysts are projecting around 40 percent or lower. 

Low turnout elections may disadvantage Black candidates and grassroots candidates, because they lack the resources to broadcast their messages widely, so they depend on riding the tickets of like-minded candidates at the top of the ballot. In an election that lacks enthusiasm, there are no coattails to ride, so the richest candidates can win by virtue of money. 

High turnout elections tend to correlate with Black voters and young voters representing an increased proportion of the total votes cast, while low turnout elections tend to be whiter and older in terms of the demographics of votes cast. Low turnout elections generally mean large parts of the electorate might not have opportunities to have their interests represented. 

How did we get here? Louisiana was the home of such characters as Huey Long and Edwin Edwards, and the state has a history of colorful politicians. Voters here expect their politicians to entertain them as well as inform them. They expect politics to be fun. Simply put, the current gubernatorial campaign is not fun, and, as a result, many voters are not excited. Many are not engaged at all. 

This race has been stagnant for months. Most pundits believe that Republican Jeff Landry and Democrat Shawn Wilson would run first and second and make it to the runoff. All of the polls have reinforced this expectation. None of the other Republican candidates have been able to displace Landry, because of his huge fundraising advantage. A stagnant race is a boring race. 

And yet, in spite of no excitement at the top of the ticket, it is still important that Orleans Parish voters show up on election day. There are many important races on the ballot, including a hotly contested race for House District 91 between incumbent Mandy Landry and challenger Madison O’Malley, that could help determine how the much-maligned Louisiana Democratic Party looks in the future. There is also a House District 23 race, an open Criminal Court Judgeship, as well as two proposed City Charter amendments and a school board tax renewal.  

There also are elections for all statewide offices, and a list of four proposed constitutional amendments that deal with issues as varied as whether or not nonprofits can be denied a tax exemption if they allow their properties to fall into disrepair; to whether or not external nonprofits, such as the Gates Foundation, can be banned from spending money on get out the vote efforts. 

The message from the candidates to the voters should be: Go vote, because these elections directly affect your quality of life. And the message from the voters to the gubernatorial candidates at the top of the ticket should be: If you could figure out how to add some fun and spice and excitement to your campaign, that would help voter turnout a great deal. This is Louisiana after all. To stay engaged, we need our politics to be like our food and music, hot and spicy.      

This article originally appeared in Verite News on October 10th, 2023.  

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