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Pushing for proportional sentencing

Recent parole decision sheds light on Louisiana’s habitual offender law


From left, Kelsey Jenkins, Fair Wayne Bryant, and Louisiana State University professor Robert Lancaster LSU Law

Pushing for proportional sentencing

Fair Wayne Bryant left the Louisiana State Penitentiary after serving 23 years of a life sentence for attempting to steal a pair of hedge clippers. The 63-year-old African American man received parole on Oct. 15 and went to a transitional program, where he will stay until eventually moving in with his brother in Shreveport.

A court convicted Bryant in 1997 of attempted burglary after someone saw him taking hedge clippers from a carport storeroom. Louisiana law considered him a habitual offender due to four previous convictions. Only one of those, armed robbery, was violent, but he received a life sentence. Bryant made several appeals, claiming his sentence was unconstitutional and out of proportion with his crime.

In July, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to review his case. Five of the seven justices voted no without an explanation, and one recused himself. Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote a dissent comparing Bryant’s sentence to Reconstruction laws in the South that lowered the bar of crime and increased the penalties. “These measures enabled southern states to continue using forced-labor (as punishment for a crime) by African Americans even after the passage of the 13th Amendment,” she wrote. She also noted his incarceration had cost the state about $518,667. “If he lives another 20 years, Louisiana taxpayers will have paid almost 1 million dollars to punish Mr. Bryant for his failed effort to steal a set of hedge clippers,” she said.

The Louisiana State University Parole and Reentry Clinic took up Bryant’s case and represented him before the parole board. “Mr. Bryant’s sentence is an example of the flaws in Louisiana’s criminal legal system,” said Kelsey Jenkins, an LSU student who worked on Bryant’s case.

The conditions of Bryant’s parole include a curfew, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and community service.


Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.

@CharissaKoh

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