Fate of Louisiana’s criminal justice reform impacted by members’ term limits, representatives say

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Mario Zervigon, left, touches on how maintaining relationships in the state legislature helped pass the unanimous jury bill during a New Orleans Coalition meeting. From left: Representative Royce Duplessis; Sarah Omojola, director of the Welcoming Project; and Senator J.P. Morrell.

Members of the New Orleans Coalition gathered Uptown Sunday afternoon to discuss the fate of – and the impact of – criminal justice reform legislation in Louisiana. Senator J.P. Morrell and Representative Royce Duplessis were on hand to recap the most recent legislative session and how each bill was successfully passed, as well as what issues will be front and center next year. Sarah Omojola, former Policy Counsel for Southern Poverty Law Center and current Director of the Welcoming Project, touched on the legislative process from an advocacy level. Mario Zervigon, of the Zervigon Consulting Group, moderated the panel.

Both Morrell and Duplessis touched on how term limits will affect the new representatives’ learning curves, since the number of experiences legislators dwindle every year. Duplessis said leaning on longtime senators helped him learn the ins and outs of the legislative process. Losing older Republicans to newly elected ones who lack “flexibility and are drunk on their election” is going to be one of the most devastating impacts from term limits, Morrlel said.

As new bodies come into the legislature, the challenge is blending goals and ideas to pass meaningful legislation. That challenge increases when “reasonable” representatives are pushed out every 12 years and replaced with members who have “drank the Kool-Aid,” Morrell said.

“As term limits take hold, the burden is going to fall upon elected progressive people who can box above their weight,” he said.

One of the biggest takeaways from this past session was the Senate’s passing of the unanimous jury bill, which goes before voters in November. Louisiana is one of only two states that allow people charged with felonies to be convicted, when only 10 of 12 jurors agree on guilt. Louisiana required unanimous verdicts through much of the 1800s, but began allowing supermajorities during Reconstruction.

Senator Morrell said one of the key strategies that helped pass the amendment was his relationships with those across the isle. The other strategic move? Messaging.

“Making this issue about the over incarceration of African American males would not pass this bill. In order to make the tent big enough, you had to make this issue about the Constitution – because even the most crazy, right-wing groups in Louisiana worship the constitution,” Morrell said.

Keith Twitchell, with Committee for a Better New Orleans, questioned whether framing the argument around the founders’ intent would be too high-brow for many residents around the state. Morrell said the goal isn’t to explain the intricacies within the Constitution, but to remain nonpolitical. Mixing the message with any other civil rights would tank the vote immediately.

“The messages we say can’t be longwinded civil rights messages – it has to be a simple message about fairness,” Omojola said.

Morrell was elected as a state representative in 2006, where he served until joining the Senate in 2008. As he nears his three-term limit, Duplessis is just starting his journey.

With only a few legislative months under his belt, Duplessis has a laundry list of changes geared toward the criminal justice system. One of the most impactful, he said, would be reconfiguring the “user-based” court systems which disproportionally impact poor residents. The quest to reduce fines and fees for those shuffling through the justice system isn’t new, but Duplessis foresees increased messaging on the issue in the near future.

Tackling mental health issues both within and without jails is key to reducing crime, Duplessis said, and remains one of his top priorities during the next legislative session. Talk turns to mental health in cases of mass shootings or high profile murders, but those convicted of armed robbery, simple assaults and robbery are left out of those conversations, Duplessis said.

“We have to deal with it from a standpoint of treating it, not punishing it,” he said.

But his main goal – especially before Morrell leaves office – is eliminating the death penalty in Louisiana. As a new representative, Duplessis said he doesn’t have enough pull to pass those amendments by himself, but working alongside Morrell could change the tide.

“It’s inhumane, and it’s something I will fight for,” he said.

He’s also pushing against media outlets publishing mugshots before the suspect is convicted. Duplessis said the practice harms the person’s reputation more than provides utility to the public. Outside of criminal justice reform, Duplessis said he’s planning to introduce legislation that gives power to municipalities to set minimum wage, rather than a blanket salary capped by the sate.

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