The current legislative efforts aimed at reducing Louisiana’s prison population are a much needed, and long overdue, step in the right direction. However, the public dialogues and legislative initiatives of this session fall short when we, as citizens and lawmakers alike, deem one class of offenders more deserving of relief than another. As evidenced by the compromises made thus far in the session, there is a collective unwillingness to extend any mercy toward individuals incarcerated for crimes of violence.
There is a general consensus that people convicted of nonviolent felonies should not be condemned to die in prison. However, our justice-reformative sympathies appear conditioned on the type of offense that landed someone in prison. While we clamor for better drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration for those who suffer from addiction, we are silent when it comes to advocating for those convicted of armed robbery or murder. The opposition to anything labeled “violent” is palpable, as our lawmakers recently gutted a bill that would allow a “violent offender” to seek parole after attaining 50 years of age and spending 30 years in prison. Allowing an avenue for parole eligibility after three decades in a Louisiana prison can hardly be regarded as a radical or liberal approach to criminal justice reform. And yet, that bill failed because it crossed into a forbidden region that concerns “violence.”
Must we be reminded that we are not the sum of our failures and that a human is more than the worst thing he has ever done? Can we not fathom that convicting someone of a crime of violence does not make that person a “violent offender”?
It is imperative that we provide relief to those individuals who were convicted of crimes of violence. For it is these individuals who are serving the longest sentences and demonstrate the most profound rehabilitation. More than anyone else in the system, these older lifers are the ones in dire need of legislative redemption or else they will die in prison.
More than 94 percent of the 4,855 individuals serving life without parole in Louisiana were convicted of a crime of violence. Nearly half of these individuals are classified as first felony offenders by the Department of Corrections.
Each year, our economically deprived state spends millions of dollars incarcerating remorseful, rehabilitated, aging men who pose absolutely no threat to society. Some of these men are on dialysis, many are in wheelchairs, and yet we turn a blind eye and a cold shoulder to their plight because they bear the bear the scarlet-letter V.
We must recognize that when judging others, it should be less about what someone did, rather than who he has proved himself to be. And we must be willing to extend our efforts at justice reform to include those individuals convicted of a crime of violence.