Equal justice topic of March 25 symposium

Treating each other equally is one of the kindest acts anyone can do. 

The Angola Museum recently held a symposium titled “In Pursuit of Equal Justice,” in which panelists talked about the inequality of criminal justice enforcement in Louisiana and prison reform. 

Candice Malone from Webster Parish, about 30 miles from Grambling, was one of the people who spoke. Last year Malone was released from Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women prison after serving 13 1/2 years for the murder of her abusive boyfriend. 

Malone explained that the self-defense laws toward women in the state are unfair. 

“As a black woman and a survivor of domestic violence and previously serving time at LCIW, I know firsthand the injustices we face concerning these sentencing laws,” Malone said. 

“Life without parole is not a fair sentence when second-degree murder carries five to 99 years in other states. While that may be excessive, there is a reprieve for the woman not to have to serve out the rest of her life in prison for defending herself.”

Malone challenged lawmakers in the future to look at the whole picture of the situation instead of with half-lenses before making a decision. 

 “I want lawmakers to look at these mandatory sentences closely and apply special lenses to each case because every case is different,” Malone said. “You have people from different backgrounds who commit crimes for different reasons; we have to consider what people have gone through in their lives before a decision is made.” 

Alanah Odoms, a civil rights leader and attorney, was also a panel participant. Odom focused on one factor that has made Louisiana the top incarcerator globally. 

 “Anti-Black racism is the main issue for the incarceration rate in our state,” said Odoms. “We would not be OK sentencing over 5,000 people to life in prison without parole if we weren’t OK that most of those people would be Black or brown. 

“The idea that we can incarcerate ourselves out of a crime problem and believe that that can positively impact crime rates is simply not true,” Odoms said. 

Lawyer Bidish Sarma, an Orleans Parish assistant district attorney in the civil rights division, said strides are being made to ensure equal justice is served. 

“Over the past year, we have tried to address several cases where the habitual offender law is evoked,” said Sarma. “Today, we have addressed about 56 cases where we have allowed someone to be resentenced to something more reasonable.” 

Louisiana’s habitual offender law says that those convicted of a felony are subject to longer and longer sentences for other convictions, which means an offender can receive a life sentence for a minor crime.

According to the ACLU, Black people represent nearly 80 percent of those convicted as habitual offenders in Louisiana.

“We have also looked at cases with life without parole sentences committed over 40 or 50 years ago,” Sarma said. “These people deserve to live the last few years of their lives as free people.” 

Attorney Keith Nordyke took a different approach by speaking on prison history in Louisiana. 

“One of the most important things that happened was the desegregation of Angola Prison. It wasn’t a single mishap during that magical switch,” Nordyke said. 

“The topic of the symposium is mass incarceration, and that first step that happened back then can cause us to come together now to lead to equal reform.”

The March 25 virtual symposium on efforts to reform sentencing was one segment of a four-day event. The other panel discussions were held March 24, March 31 and April 1.

All “In Pursuit of Equal Justice” sessions examined how Louisiana’s history of racial strife contributed to the current inequalities in the state’s criminal justice system, which led to African Americans having a disproportionately high arrest and incarceration rate.

The symposium series had a strong GSU connection. Alumnus Huey Perry and Dr. Marianne Fisher-Giorlando, GSU Criminal Justice professor emerita and Education Committee chair of the Angola Museum, served as co-directors of the project. The symposium was an outgrowth of the extensive research the two have been conducting.

Fisher-Giorlando also served as moderator for the March 24 panel discussion.