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Client and Family Assistance Program

The Client and Family Assistance Project focuses on reducing the hardships that families of prisoners face. The project also works to reduce unnecessary physical suffering and increase opportunities for rehabilitation and redemption. Incarceration and the threat of execution take a huge toll on the families of condemned inmates.

The PJI Client, their Family, and the Community

PJI clients frequently come from families without resources to maintain contact with loved ones. The cost of having a family member in prison is extremely high, both financially and emotionally.

  1. Keeping in Touch
    • Prisoners are only allowed to make collect calls. These collect calls home are immensely expensive, and some families simply cannot afford phone calls with their loved ones.

    • The Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola for the home country of slaves who worked the land when it was a plantation, is a three-hour drive from New Orleans and many miles away from most major cities in Louisiana. Our clients’ families often do not have the ability to make the trip to Angola. Many prisoners have gone years without seeing any family members or loved ones.

  2. Hope and the Pursuit of Innocence
    • Without basic human interaction, all people deteriorate, physically and emotionally. Prisoners who are fighting wrongful convictions often lose hope without the support of their loved ones.
    • Visits improve the behavior of prisoners.

  3. Family and Community
    • A lack of meaningful connection between prisoners and their loved ones can also traumatize children of prisoners and their families. The emotional trauma that accompanies having a family member imprisoned can lead to further strife and violence in the community.

  4. Basic Human Necessities
    • The Louisiana prison system often does not take into account the basic fundamental needs of its prisoners. Some prisoners face intense isolation, unnecessary physical suffering, and unattended medical needs.

How the Client and Family Assistance Project Helps

  1. Keeping Families Communicating:
    • PJI works to help families keep in touch with their incarcerated loved ones, by defraying costs of collect calls and aiding families in letter-writing.
    • PJI provides transportation for biannual family visits to Angola.

  2. Creating Healthy Minds and Healthy Communities
    • We help families maintain their connections. This work reduces prison violence, boosts the morale of condemned prisoners, and alleviates the void created by a missing family member.
    • PJI also partners with local community organizations to counsel families of prisoners, supporting them in improving coping strategies and reducing grief. Creating a safe place for families reduces acting-out in our communities and helps the families of those incarcerated live more positive, fulfilled lives.

  3. Providing the Basics
    • People have a right to the basic necessities of life. PJI helps prisoners receive medical care when the prison system will not care for them. The project also provides simple necessities, such as reading glasses and educational materials.

The Client and Family Assistance Project is largely supported through ongoing, small-scale grassroots fundraising activities and individual donations. Our project coordinator position is staffed through a low-cost partnership with AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.

 

Policy Reform Project

The Policy Reform Project pursues justice at the policy level. Louisiana’s high rate of incarceration is directly tied to poverty and inequality. Only with deliberate, long-term, strategic efforts can we as a community overcome these high imprisonment rates and begin to create a healthier Louisiana.

The Prison System in Louisiana

Louisiana locks up more citizens per capita than any other state. In the 1990s, the privatization of the prison system resulted in incentives to lock up more people for longer periods of time. The same private interests influence state criminal justice policies.

How We Affect Policy

Litigation, community organizing, and policy reform go hand in hand. PJI works closely with grassroots community efforts and policy reform organizations around Louisiana to identify common priorities, develop informed ideas about legislation, and bring these ideas to state lawmakers. Our staff attends hearings, offers testimony, and develops research to drive policy changes. We strongly defend against regressive proposals, which often increase over-incarceration and fail to improve public safety.

Abolition

The Promise of Justice Initiative strives to achieve non-violent and effective alternatives to Louisiana’s death penalty. Together we work to educate citizens about:

  • Racial and religious discrimination in jury selection
  • Racial and geographic discrimination in first-degree murder charging decisions
  • The overwhelmingly high cost of pursuing capital convictions

PJI also seeks abolition by joining with community and grassroots organizations to advocate for improved protection of public safety, smarter and more effective uses of resources, and restorative justice for families and communities affected by murder. Our work is supported through donations from lawyers, clergy, individuals and foundations opposed to capital punishment.

 

Light of Justice Project

Presently before the U.S. Supreme Court

Dale Lambert v. Louisiana, No. 16-9132.  

Amicus Curiae Brief has been filed by Lewis & Clark Law School Criminal Justice Reform Clinic.

John Adams said: “It is the unanimity of the jury that preserves the rights of mankind.”  But in Louisiana, a defendant can be sentenced to life in prison without parole based upon a non-unanimous 10-2 verdict.  Louisiana's majority verdict system was first introduced in the State's 1898 Constitution, as part of a series of measures specifically designed to "establish the supremacy of the white race."  As Thomas Aiello wrote in Jim Crow’s Last Stand: Non-unanimous Jury Verdicts in Louisiana, “It was a law designed to increase convictions to feed the state’s burgeoning convict lease system and remained in the first half of the segregationist twentieth century even after convict lease had run its course. … It is the last active law of racist Redeemer politics in Louisiana.”

Louisiana leads the nation, and the world, in incarceration.  Per capita, it leads the country in wrongful convictions and exonerations.  While non-unanimous juries may not be the sole cause, the Promise of Justice Initiative believes that the lack of unanimity undermines confidence in the administration of justice.  We believe that the 10-2 verdict is a lasting monument to – as well as a daily resurrection of – the time when the State had no interest in preserving and protecting the rights of African-American citizens.   

 

Lambert v. Louisiana In the News

 

Washington Post: These jury systems are vestiges of white supremacy

Louisiana and Oregon are not often thought of in the same vein. But on the issue of non-unanimous juries, they are kindred spirits.

In these two states, the prosecutor needs to persuade only 10 of 12 jurorsfor a felony conviction that does not involve the death penalty. All other states require unanimous jury decisions in felony cases — as does the federal system, including federal courts in Louisiana and Oregon.

These jury systems are largely unnoticed vestiges of white supremacy and oppression in our legal system. The Supreme Court now has the chance to accept a case that could end the use of non-unanimous juries in criminal cases. It should take this chance.

 

The Advocate: It's time to end our discriminatory jury rule in Louisiana

 

US News & World Report: A look at the killing that gave Oregon its 10-2 jury system

 

The Oregonian: Dirty Secret of Oregon Jury System Could Go Before U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court next week will decide whether to accept a case that could test Oregon's unusual jury system, targeted by criminal justice reform advocates as deeply flawed and racist.

The Oregonian: Editorial: Justice Requires a tougher standard than 'guilty enough:'

Jury unanimity isn't the law in Oregon and Louisiana. The two outlier states require that only 10 of 12 jurors agree to a guilty verdict for defendants facing most state felony charges, including manslaughter, arson and rape. That watered-down standard, which enables the majority to disregard the concerns of holdout jurors, reflects the racist and xenophobic mentality that thrived at the time of their passage decades ago.

 Mail Tribune: Addressing Oregon's Legacy of Injustice:

Oregon’s sordid history of racial and ethnic discrimination is well known. Here in the Rogue Valley, a photo of the Ku Klux Klan parading through Ashland in the 1920s has been reprinted over and over when the issue of race relations comes up. What is less well known is that the state’s criminal justice system still contains a relic of that intolerance. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to take up a challenge to that relic.

…. On Sept. 25, the Supreme Court is scheduled to consider whether to take up the case of Dale Lambert of Louisiana, who is serving a life sentence without parole for second-degree murder although two of the 12 jurors in his trial were not convinced of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The court should take the case, and erase once and for all this legacy of injustice.

The New Orleans Times Picayune: Should juries be unanimous? Treme murder case raises question for U.S. Supreme Court

What authorities described as a mistaken retaliatory murder committed four years ago in Treme could provide the unlikely impetus to end non-unanimous jury verdicts in the United States, supporters of criminal justice reform hope.

The Bend Bulletin: U.S. Supreme Court may review non-unanimous jury verdicts. Oregon one of two states to allow such convictions.

Oregon has a long history of racism and xenophobia dating back to its pre-statehood practice of excluding black residents from settling here. It later became the only state admitted to the union with an exclusionary clause in its constitution.

Some argue that contempt for minorities persists today in the form of jury verdicts that do not require unanimous approval — a practice Oregon voters approved in 1934. Advocates for jury reform, citing U.S. Census Bureau data, say the unorthodox practice silences minorities and can lead to race-based criminal convictions of innocent people.

The Portland Tribune: Oregon's non-unanimous jury law under scrutiny. A case appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court could impact Oregon law allowing 10-2 convictions. 

Oregon's long-time law allowing felony convictions by non-unanimous juries could be tested if the U.S. Supreme Court accepts a case challenging a similar law in Louisiana.

 

Light of Justice

Our constitution guarantees fairness and even-handedness, yet too often, our criminal justice system fails to protect the constitutional rights of the accused. Bias, prosecutorial misconduct, and poor representation by defense lawyers infect outcomes, and Louisiana courts and prosecutors in particular have a long history of violating constitutional rights.

PJI works to hold prosecutors and courts accountable for violations resulting in injustice by exposing and addressing violations of constitutional rights in individual cases. While we cannot represent everyone who suffers injustice, we help prisoners gather the documents necessary to becoming their own advocates against injustice. We also provide representation and friend-of-the-court briefs in a limited number of cases.

Injustice serves no one. Innocent people languish in prison while the guilty go free. Bias in the prosecution of crimes results in disparate treatment of African-American, mentally ill, and intellectually disabled citizens. Ineffective defense representation deprives juries of facts necessary to reach just verdicts. The same is true when prosecutors deny the accused access to favorable evidence. The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly declared that Louisiana’s prosecutors have withheld evidence that may prove innocence.

Our work with prisoners is spearheaded by Calvin Duncan, whose talent and commitment earned him a 2013 Soros Justice Fellowship to carry out his mission. Mr. Duncan experienced the injustice of Louisiana’s criminal justice system first-hand, spending over 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Mr. Duncan now devotes himself to helping prisoners overcome barriers to challenging wrongful convictions by providing them with:

  • Legal documentation
  • Better-equipped prison libraries with up-to-date legal information
  • Access to and review of police and district attorney files

Non-Unanimous Jury Project

By the time Louisiana 1898 Constitutional Convention convened, it was clear that African Americans could no longer be legally denied participation in criminal jury trials.  But to continue the “supremacy of the white race,” laws were enacted to limit the effects of African Americans participation in criminal jury trials.  Louisiana went from unanimous jury verdict system to non-unanimous system.  Every State in the United States, in addition to the federal government, requires unanimous jury verdicts in order to convict a defendant, except Louisiana and Oregon.  Louisiana’s racially-discriminatory-non-unanimous-jury-verdict system allows a defendant to be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison based on a less them unanimous jury vote.

Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury verdict laws discriminate against African Americans.

Oregon’s non-unanimous jury verdict laws are both racist and anti-semetic. 

What is being done?

Litigation is being taken to repeal Louisiana’s racial discriminatory non-unanimous jury verdict laws. 

Pending cases:  

Presently before the U.S. Supreme Court is Dale Lambert v. Louisiana, No. 16-9132.  In Lambert v. Louisiana, an Amicus Curiae Brief has been filed by Lewis & Clark Law School Criminal Justice Reform Clinic.

Other amicus curiae briefs filed in other cases:

Derrick Todd Lee v. Louisiana, No. 07-1523:  Amicus Curiae Briefs filed by:

Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers;

American Bar Association;

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers;

Federal Public Defender for the District Court of Oregon;

Houston Institution for Race and Justice.

Corey Miller v. Louisiana, No. 12-162:  Amicus Curiae Briefs filed by:

Constitutional Accountability Center;

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association

Ortiz T. Jackson v. Louisiana, No. 13-11055:  Amicus Curiae Briefs filed by:

Innocence Project of New Orleans

 

Prison Conditions Project

Conditions of confinement in the Louisiana prison system violate the constitutional rights of many prisoners. Due to overcrowding, limited funding, and a narrow focus on retribution, prisoners in the Louisiana endure unnecessarily harsh conditions in their daily lives. The Prison Conditions Project provides legal support to our clients who need assistance holding the state accountable for their conditions of confinement. The Promise of Justice Initiative advocates and litigates for humane, dignified and constitutional treatment of our clients. We seek to infuse Louisiana’s prison system with reason, necessary reform, and a respect for human dignity. Our work is supported by the Venture Justice Fund.

Litigation

Inhumane Heat Conditions

In June 2013, the Promise of Justice Initiative, with co-counsel Bird Marella P.C. and Attorney Steve Scheckman of Schiff, Scheckman & White LLP, filed a federal complaint on behalf of three death row inmates, who were mentally and physically struggling with the extreme, inhumane heat conditions on death row tiers at Angola. Temperatures on death row approached dangerous and life-threatening levels.

Execution Protocol Disclosure

In December 2012, the Promise of Justice Initiative filed a lawsuit on behalf of Jessie Hoffman to challenge the State’s refusal to turn over its procedures on lethal injection. After fighting for and winning public disclosure of these procedures, PJI continues to litigate the constitutionality of lethal injection procedures in Louisiana.

Inadequate Medical Care at Angola

Adequate medical care is a right under the Eighth Amendment. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, however, prisoners are denied even basic care resulting from, among other factors, overly restrictive policies and staff shortages. In May 2015, the Promise of Justice Initiative, with co-counsel Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, the Advocacy Center, and the ACLU of Louisiana, filed a federal class action complaint on behalf of a class of prisoners who are subject to Angola's provision of medical care. Plaintiffs include men who have been denied even basic diagnostic testing for serious diseases, men who have been denied surgery for obvious and painful conditions, men who are disabled but are not reasonably accommodated under the law, and men with chronic care needs whose conditions have needlessly deteriorated because of the prison's lack of adequate care. The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to deliver constitutionally adequate medical care to prisoners at Angola.

 

Advocacy

PJI regularly receives phone calls from prisoners who are requesting help with any number of difficulties they face in prison, from poor access to necessary medical and mental health care to the use of excessive force. PJI advocates with prison officials for improved responses to prisoners’ basic needs in appropriate individual cases.