BATON ROUGE–In this spring’s legislative session, criminal justice advocates will be pushing for increased funding for public defenders and for changes in policing practices.

Norris Henderson, the founder of Voice of The Experienced, a non-profit known as VOTE, said both areas represent crucial steps in reforming the state’s justice system and making it fairer for minorities.

The Legislature provided an extra $3 million for public defenders last year and is looking at whether to provide more. Police tactics came under question around the country after the death of George Floyd in custody last year in Minneapolis, and Louisiana lawmakers created the Police Training, Screening and De-escalation Task Force to address those practices here.

As of now, with the trial of one of the officers in the Floyd case in the headlines, the task force has made 21 recommendations for legislators to consider once the session begins.

These recommendations include bans on chokeholds, a prohibition of “no-knock” warrants, requirements for officers to wear and turn on body cameras, reducing time for officers to find legal representation and reducing the time to complete an investigation of officers involved in possible wrongdoing.

VOTE was formed in 2004, and it aims to uphold civil rights for individuals who are most impacted by the justice system.

Henderson was drawn to social justice work because he was directly impacted by the system. In 1997, he was wrongly convicted of murder and served 30 years in prison until the Supreme Court overturned his case in 2004.

Norris Henderson began looking into criminal justice issues while he was wrongly incarcerated (Photo courtesy of Henderson)

While incarcerated, Henderson spent time reviewing the cases of other prisoners. He realized that many cases ended in convictions because public defenders lack the resources to provide defendants with an adequate defense.

Americans are entitled to a fundamental right to legal counsel, and Henderson acknowledges that a lack of funding for public defenders creates a burden on defendants when the system cannot meet constitutional standards.

While proposals to modify the criminal-justice system tend to spark debate, many legislators recognize the need for changes. The Legislature formed the Louisiana Public Defender Board Optimal Funding Group to address this issue.

Henderson stressed that public defenders need a dedicated stream of funding because they are overworked and underpaid. Public defenders are expected to provide an adequate defense for each client, but they also carry heavy caseloads that can make it difficult for them to thoroughly advocate on behalf of their clients.

Henderson said minority communities are the most affected because they disproportionately rely on the services of public defenders.

VOTE also is pushing the Legislature to eliminate funding disparities between district attorney offices and public defenders. District attorney offices are subsidized by the state, while public defenders rely on payments from traffic tickets for funding.

Due to the pandemic, this presents a problem for public defenders because there has been a reduction in crime and traffic stops. Henderson believes that both types of offices should receive equal funding to insure justice.

He adds that “if the money is not equally disbursed, there’s always going to be inequity.”

Members of the Louisiana Public Defender Board Optimal Funding Group met in early February to discuss the funding disparities. During the meeting, the Senate Fiscal Services Division presented a report showing that balances for DA offices were 4.2 times higher than those of public defenders.

Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, who chaired the meeting, said this report would help the group promote legislation to increase funding for public defender offices.

She added that increases in funding are “crucial to ensuring justice” for the people of Louisiana.

In addition to supporting public defenders, VOTE is working with lawmakers to change policing practices.

While Norris Henderson thinks that the task force recommendations, like banning chokeholds and prohibiting “no-knock” warrants, are steps in the right direction, he feels that the Legislature could do more.

Ultimately, he believes that police officers should not have immunity from prosecution. Removing it, he said, would incentivize them to think twice before acting.

Consequences for officers are only possible “when there’s no immunity attached to them,” he said.

VOTE also has pushed to end solitary confinement in prisons, prison gerrymandering and the system of cash bail.

In 2018, VOTE helped to restore voting rights for convicted felons on parole. Although this law is considered to be a substantial start of change, Henderson and his organization are still fighting to overcome some hurdles.

Henderson emphasized that there is much more work that can be done in the criminal justice system. He said that while seeking to achieving racial justice often feels like swimming upstream, he remains resolute.

He said that his organization and other advocates will “be here until the last brick falls” trying to protect those he sees as underrepresented.