A vote is due soon by Gov. John Bel Edwards' Felony Class System Task Force to propose legislation for a simplified and streamlined felony class system that categorizes offenses and creates sentencing guidelines. This is a very important reform, but most of the public will not even know what it is about. Understanding how the law works — and doesn’t work — should put what the task force is trying to achieve into context.
The purpose of the law is to create, establish, and maintain a moral order of society — and restore it when violated.
A democratic society is constantly working to discover and fashion what it considers a moral order. For example, the desire to balance minority rights with majority will is a relentless struggle. Those adhering to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions seek an order reflective of the compassion, righteousness, and justice of God. Christians specifically seek an order that reflects the mind of Christ and is most transparent to the kingdom of God.
The power of the law is in its symbolic clout. It points to what is considered moral: to the unity and orderliness of society, to what is truly important to society, to the degree to which certain behavior will not be tolerated in society, and to its power to curse.
For example, in criminal law, the sanctions to be imposed for violation of different laws indicate the extent to which a person will be judged by society. A fine tells people that they should obey a particular law, but a felony conviction imposes a significant curse on the moral behavior of the person and makes her or him an outcast. The law does not work as effectively when relying on punishment or retribution. A far more effective deterrent is the threat that a person will genuinely experience the curse or censure of one’s peers, family, friends, or circle of society.
The ultimate power of the law is in its ability to restore the moral order after it has been violated; the most effective restoration is reconciliation of a person to society as a body. Putting formerly incarcerated people back on the streets of society after they have served time, but without rehabilitation, is the greatest danger — and result — presently produced by our criminal justice system.
Symbolic clarity is absolutely key. The level and magnitude of particular categories of felony offense should be as clear as possible — and from the get-go — not only to lawyers, correction officials and accused individuals, but it must be clear to the society at large in order to be effective. Of course, clarity would be of utmost importance even if the legal sanctions relied solely on the length and intensity of punishment. But it is all the more crucial because the effect of shame and rejection of one’s society is what will finally drive a human being to repentance and the desire for personal transformation.
In fact, the present system — for the virtue of putting flexibility and bargaining power in the hands of prosecutors — has become impossibly confusing, even to judges and legal scholars, and more so to the public. The example usually offered, but not in isolation, is the fact that Louisiana can now incarcerate people convicted of robbery without a firearm longer than those committing armed robbery with a weapon. Louisiana needs a clear and uniform set of sentencing guidelines and release eligibility rules for people charged with felony offenses. Doing so will return order to Louisiana. I urge the Task Force to recommend a meaningful felony class system, and I implore our Legislature to approve it.
Joe Morris Doss is an attorney and Bishop of the Episcopal Church.