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Decision 2018: Amendment 2

The Justice and Accountability Center has worked since 2011 to tackle deficiencies in the post-conviction phase of the criminal justice system and advocate for criminal justice reform locally and state-wide. After all, this message is a part of our organizational creed. Those who work for and have previously worked for JAC know first-hand the uphill battle this work can be and the journey it takes to mobilize resources and engage with the public. It is ultimately the public, not the consortium of non-profits, do-gooders, amenable politicians, and media personalities, that make the decisive decisions behind criminal justice policy. It is for that reason alone - not because of scientific consensus (much to the chagrin of myself) - that the criminal justice system has been manipulated and warped into a bloated octopus which has torn through our nation’s communities, broken families, and economically isolated an entire percentage of our able-bodies citizenry. At this point you might paint me a cynic, but the truth is I have an immeasurable reservoir of hope. The reason? Civic engagement and the power of the individual vote. Voting is as endemic to the culture as apple pie, Rock and Roll, and a penchant for subtle humor. America’s story begins with voting (and may end with it in fact). Voting always has and continues to have a massive impact on the nation’s direction and actually creates change in your daily life whether or not you realize it. Now you’d have to be living in a remote part of Siberia and living on a diet solely consisting of caribou meat to not realize that 2018 marks a major pivot point in national politics. Both major parties are competing for control of the political agenda and there is a major push to shift the discussion at all levels of government. While the status of party-ownership is battled across many states and the federal government, Louisiana - being an a-typical election year - doesn’t have quite the same drama playing out. Here at home we are not electing any major state-wide positions (with the lone exception being Secretary of State) and local elections in New Orleans concluded decisively last year with the election of Mayor Latoya Cantrell. Unlike many swing states whose electorate could be categorized as “purple” and are voting for governor or for those elusive pivot congressional districts, many voting advocates across the state are concerned about low turnout and a continuation of voter apathy. And despite this, it is actually quite a big year for Louisiana. What makes this year unique is the opportunity voters will have when it comes to re-shaping criminal justice policy. One MAJOR amendment to current statue has caught the attention of pundits, media correspondents, and activists.

You may have heard about Amendment 2 - it’s a big one. Many prolific national and state characters have offered their platform as a way to mobilize voters into action despite a slow year for state-wide elections. So what is it exactly? Put simply, Amendment 2 offers an update to the law so that unanimous agreement among jurors would be needed before convicting someone accused of a felony. A left over from the Jim Crow-era, unanimous juries are required for conviction in all but two states (Oregon is the other). The history of jury ratios is actually diverse and for context, can’t be ignored. Upon statehood in 1812, Louisiana had a unanimous jury requirement for any felony convictions - statute that remained on the books until 1898. Led by E.B Krutt Schnitt, a constitutional convention was called to propose changes to the existing law. Among them was to reduce the number of jurors needed for conviction. This new “83% rule” was said to help reduce costs and ease the burden that trial cases had on the court system. Schnitt suggested that such a change could also remedy the bastardization of the electorate by eliminating power from “corrupt and illiterate” voters.” Some have claimed though that the conventions stated mission was to specifically “perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana” and that the law was an attempt to correct the adoption of the 14th amendment [recall that this is the same time that the case involving Homer Plessey - which eventually led to the “separate but equal” tradition of Jim Crowe - was unfolding in New Orleans]. As Vox writer German Lopez found, the adoption of the 14th amendment meant that courts now had to seat black people on a jury and afford them discretionary decision-making power. In a thinly veiled power grab, the rule essentially striped any power people of color might have had in decisions regarding criminal convictions.

In summary, Amendment 2 can be described in relatively straight forward terms. It affords Louisiana the opportunity to come in line with 48 others states and can fix clear sentencing disparities between African American and white defendants. Moreover, it is a redress for decades - even centuries - of hostile politic shrouded in niceties and disguised as something more digestible while retaining all the racialized elements of a law preceding the dissolution of slavery. On November 6th, Louisianans will not vote for executive leadership or decide who will represent the state in the Senate. I believe the decision is much bigger; more monumental and with greater permanence. It is JAC’s collective belief that a “yes” for Amendment 2 will offer a course correction, create a more balanced and fair trial process, eliminate sources of bias, and promote racial justice. The state has made amazing progress in criminal justice reform and high time we continue marching forward.

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