HomeNewsLife in prison for stealing $20: how The Division is taking apart brutal criminal sentences
Life in prison for stealing $20: how The Division is taking apart brutal criminal sentences
May 7, 2022
As Maurice Lewis was granted his freedom at the end of last year, he wept before a judge. “God bless you,” he told her. “I’ll never do this again. Thank you for putting me back with my family.”
Lewis, a 57-year-old man, had been sentenced to life without parole in 1998. He had spent the last 23 years at Angola prison, serving his punishment by laboring on the fields, sweeping the prison hospital wards, and cleaning toilets at Louisiana’s state legislature.
Life without parole is a sentence so harsh, it is associated with heinous crimes. But not in Louisiana, the most incarcerated state in the world’s most incarcerated country.
Lewis’s crime had been so banal it has never been written about before. He was sentenced in an almost empty courtroom, with no family members present, at the end of a hearing that lasted a few minutes.
He had been convicted of stealing $20 in cash from a snatched purse.
“It felt like it was me against the world,” he remembered in an interview. “They kept on digging over my past.”
That the money was returned to the unharmed white woman within minutes of the crime did not matter. Under the state’s habitual offender laws, voraciously enforced by the Orleans parish district attorney’s office at the time, he had been branded a career criminal. And as this was the third time the state invoked the habitual offender law, he was mandatorily sentenced to life with no chance of release.
A glance at Lewis’s prior record reveals no career criminal, but a life of struggle instead. He had left school at the age of 14 without learning to read and had taken a few low paying jobs – delivering newspapers, and dish cleaning at a local hotel to support his mother.
His youth had been punctuated by a series of convictions for minor crimes in which no one was physically hurt and a grand total of $44 was taken and later returned. He was involved in the theft of some stereo equipment aged 19. A purse at the age of 21. And at 27, he took an umbrella from a front porch. It was, he recalled, raining that day.
Lewis was convicted of burgling an inhabited dwelling and sentenced to 80 months in prison.
Using his prior record, the city of New Orleans deemed that Maurice Lewis should die in prison after the final purse snatching offense in 1998, in which he had pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors described him at trial as “a predator”, a racist trope.
At the end of September last year, Lewis becameone of the first 128 people given back their freedom thanks to a new civil rights division in the Orleans parish district attorney’s office.
The division was created by the city’s new district attorney, Jason Williams, who ran as a progressive reformer and pledged never to use Louisiana’s habitual offender statute again. Part of his new civil rights division’s work to address past harms has been to revisit excessive sentences. It has since relitigated 82 habitual offender cases, resulting in their sentence enhancement or “multi-bills” being amended or revoked, and leading to immediate release from prison.
Overuse of Louisiana’s habitual offender law is seen by many reform advocates as one of the major drivers of mass incarceration in the state. The act automatically increases prison time (from a second felony conviction onwards) and significantly removes the discretion of judges.
Their implementation was famously derided by Louisiana’s former supreme court chief justice, Bernette Johnson, in a 2020 dissent after the court denied a request to review the sentence of a man named Fair Wayne Bryant who was sent away for life for the attempted theft of a pair of hedge clippers. Judge Johnson described the law’s usage as a “modern manifestation” of 19th-century Pig Laws, racist statutes designed to criminalize Black people implemented shortly after the US civil war.
Nowhere in the state were they as readily enforced as in New Orleans, where prosecutors used them routinely for decades, first at the instruction of former DA Harry Connick and continuing into the tenure of Leon Cannizzaro. Although in recent years the Louisiana state legislature has amended the laws to reduce mandatory sentences and later made it harder for prosecutors to enforce them as vigorously as before, there are still hundreds of people incarcerated, with their sentences enhanced by multi-billing.
At the beginning of 2021, at least 718 people from Orleans parish were still incarcerated under sentences extended by the habitual offender statute. Ninety-three percent of them are Black.
In a monumental shift, the DA’s office is now working with attorneys in the public defender’s office and other non-profit defense groups to sift through the hundreds of names, considering each individually for re-examination on a range of criteria. These include whether the defendant was a juvenile at the time of the offense, if the offense was categorized as non-violent or no violence occurred, if the conviction was secured by a non-unanimous jury or if the defendant had been offered a more favorable plea before trial.
During a recent meeting of the civil rights division, Cormac Boyle, one of only two trial attorneys assigned to the unit in its first year, began reading from an extensive list of cases they were preparing to take back to court.
It was a sobering monologue:
Life without parole for a non-violent car theft.
60 years for possession with intention to distribute 2.4 grams of cocaine.
20 years for theft of a motorized dirt bike.
40 years for purse snatching. (The man, sentenced in 1986, had almost completed his sentence in full.)
The list drew occasional gasps from the assembled attorneys and investigators. Some, like Boyle, have worked for years on similar cases, but the sheer volume of severity has remained striking to almost everyone.
“I get so frustrated by the utter wastage that we see of human life with the kind of sentencing that we are dealing with,” said Emily Maw, chief of the civil rights division. “It is futile.”
A few weeks after his release, Maurice Lewis was struggling. He had been overjoyed as he came out and saw his sister and brother at the gates of Angola waiting to greet him. But the realities of life outside grew day by day.
Every relitigated multi-bill case includes a re-entry plan for a defendant’s release. But plans do not always become reality. Decades of trauma do not simply wash away.
Lewis had first taken up work at a local restaurant, cleaning pots and pans in the kitchen, but, he said, was laid off when his boss found out about his criminal record. Afterwards he had tried to find work downtown, in the bustling tourist hubs on Canal Street. He walked into a number of storefronts asking for a job. The old hotel he’d worked at in the 1980s. A Footlocker. No luck.
Lewis had effectively spent his entire adult life incarcerated and the realities of the free world were difficult to adapt to. He had never used a mobile phone. He had no bank account. No drivers license or state ID.
He met with family members; aunts and uncles, nieces or nephews who had grown old or grown up during his decades behind bars. It was a confronting reality.
He was living with his younger brother Eugene in a small apartment block, but with little space, he was sleeping in the living room. Every morning he woke up facing a life-sized photograph of his mother, Alise, who had died while he was in prison.
“I couldn’t even be there to look down on my mama,” he said one recent blustery afternoon. “Right now, today, it still messes with me.”
On some nights, when it got too much, he had wandered the streets alone and slept outside under a bridge. On one occasion, he described being pulled over by police and asked for identification documents that he didn’t have.
“At night time it’s dangerous,” he said, his deep baritone voice at odds with his slim, slight frame. “Anything can happen to you.”
In conversations, he offered fragments of the abuse he experienced inside: of violence he witnessed, men beaten with padlocks wrapped in socks in the dorms, of a time he recalled being placed in restraints after a breakdown following the death of his mother.
“I just thank God for the blessing, you know? For putting me back out here,” he said one evening in late winter as he ate dinner in the city’s French Quarter. “What they did to me was wrong, using my past record. And I’m just trying … trying to make it right.”
Former New Orleans district attorney Harry Connick, now 96, forcefully defended his office’s routine use of the habitual offender laws, arguing it was his experience as a defense lawyer that guided his usage of the statute.
“I represented them [multiple offenders] for years, and I know them,” he said, during an interview. “I know their criminal histories, and I know that if you give them a year, they come out, they’ll go and commit more crime. Give them five years and they come out, they’re going to go commit more crimes. That’s what they do.”
Connick pointed to his office’s creation of a diversion program, which deferred prosecution of first time nonviolent offenders, as an effort to steer defendants away from punitive measures.
But did he recognize that many of those he was prosecuting under the statute, like Maurice Lewis, were involved in crimes born of poverty and desperation?
“Desperate for what?” He said. “Money? … I’m not a social worker. And my job was to prosecute.”
“People used to complain about the number of people I was sending to Angola. I would tell them to stop committing crimes, and I’ll stop prosecuting them.”
He added: “For every year that individual, that habitual offender, that career criminal, would spend in the penitentiary, that diminishes the number of crimes that he’s going to commit. If you get enough of them in, you’re going to help your crime rate tremendously.”
Despite Connick’s claims, the crime rate in New Orleans soared throughout the 1990s, with experts pointing to a complex mixture of societal forces felt acutely in the city. These include multidimensional poverty, income inequality and the effects of mass incarceration itself.
Jason Williams would point to these causes on repeat during his 2020 election campaign. In an interview, he cited his family’s experiences with racism and the criminal justice system as a major factor in shaping his views on fair prosecution.
Williams’s mother grew up in Bogalusa in central Louisiana, a hotbed of KKK activity during the civil rights era. His great uncles were part of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, an armed Black self-defense group that was founded in the town.
“Growing up, I’d see them work on cars and tend to chickens in the yard,” he remembered. “They just looked like men in overalls. I never thought about them as defenders of anything.
“It painted this picture for me that people who fight for things don’t necessarily look a certain way. They don’t necessarily get the credit. No sign or marker. Sometimes you’ve just gotta fight for what’s right and go back to raising your family.”
Williams was born in New Orleans but moved to Atlanta for much of his youth. He would return to the city in summers and hear stories from his cousins, living in New Orleans’s lower ninth ward, of police brutality and unfair arrests.
He returned to New Orleans for college, and upon graduation quickly became a star of the criminal defense world and later the city council president. His unexpected victory in the 2020 DA’s race shook the city’s establishment, but he has since faced criticism on both sides of the political aisle.
On the right, he has taken significant blame for rising violent crime rates, which began a year before he assumed office, but continued into 2021 when the city’s murder tally rose to 218, the highest since Hurricane Katrina. His office has also been under fire for charging delays, which have led to higher rates of jail release for violent crime suspects.On the left, both his rhetorical and policy response to the crime wave has been seen as a reversal of a number of campaign pledges.
It was, he said in a recent interview, one of the hardest decisions he has had to make in office.
In the same exchange, Williams reiterated his pledge never to use the habitual offender statute again, and maintained his longstanding criticism of his predecessor’s use of it.
But, he added: “When you talk about violent crime, when I ran, I didn’t run as a prison abolitionist. There are some people that need jail time. And the jail time should be the appropriate number to hold that person accountable for the harm they cause.”
Pointing to his critics on the right who have attempted to associate his tenure with a rise in violent crime, Williams said: “They would rather blame a reform minded DA who wanted to make the office more fair. If I took office and I was doing everything the same way as my predecessors I still think there’d be a bit of a double standard.
“I think there are certain folks who are uncomfortable with the fact that the chief prosecutor in a southern state is a dark brown man.”
On a bright Sunday morning in spring Maurice Lewis sat in church, his head bent in prayer and his right arm lifted to the heavens. He had come to worship at the Next Generation Original Morning Star, in a congregation made up mostly of formerly incarcerated people. It was his first Sunday service since release.
Pastor Tyrone Smith led the worshippers in a rendition of Amazing Grace. It soared to the rafters and had the congregation swaying in time. It reminded Lewis of his mother again. The hymn had been played at her funeral, which he could not attend.
Pastor Smith, himself formerly incarcerated, is co-director of the First 72+, a non-profit organization that assists people with re-entry. Lewis had received some assistance from the group, but even now, four months after release, he was struggling to navigate the complex bureaucracy to regain some of the documentation he required to claim income assistance or apply for jobs.
There is little to no state assistance for those leaving prison in Louisiana, meaning non-profits like the First 72+ and individual family members shoulder much of the burden assisting those who re-enter society.
“As a country we fail with the whole criminal legal system,” said Jené O’Keefe Trigg, the civil rights division’s director of partnerships and development. “We just completely rip families apart and lock them away from their homes and their families, and then don’t give them anything to come home to. It’s just such an utter failure, that means we have to do more on the back end.”
At the end of last year the division secured a $1m federal grant to assess and bolster re-entry services in the city.
“I think we [the prosecutor’s office] have a moral obligation to ensure that New Orleans has as robust of a re-entry landscape as possible because we are rectifying these cases and bringing more people home.”
Lewis has tried to remain optimistic ever since his release and drew strength from the hour of church. He aspired to work in a local hospital, a cleaning job perhaps, anywhere surrounded by people, where he could contribute.
“What the man up above did for me, he got that life sentence off me,” he said. “I just want to press on. Put it to the side. If I don’t take it and put it to the side, I’m going back to somewhere I don’t want to go.”
“He’s the reason I’m out here now. He sees me. I’m not invisible.”