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From the dissenting opinion of the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, issued in July in response to the court’s decision to decline to review the case of Fair Wayne Bryant, a black man who was sentenced to life in prison for theft.

Mr. Bryant’s sentence is sanctioned under the habitual offender law because of his four prior convictions. His first conviction was attempted armed robbery in 1979, for which he was sentenced to ten years of hard labor. He has had no more violent convictions. He was subsequently convicted of possession of stolen things in 1987; attempted forgery of a $150 check in 1989; and simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling. Each of these crimes was an effort to steal something. Such petty theft is frequently driven by the ravages of poverty or addiction, often both.

In the years following Reconstruction, Southern states criminalized recently emancipated African-American citizens by introducing extreme sentences for petty theft associated with poverty. These measures enabled Southern states to continue using forced labor (as punishment) by African Americans even after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Known in some places as Pig Laws, they replaced the Black Codes that were prevalent after the Civil War ended. Pig Laws were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans. They targeted actions such as stealing cattle and swine by lowering the threshold for what constituted a crime and increasing the punishment. These laws remained on the books for decades. And this case demonstrates their modern manifestation: harsh habitual offender laws that permit a life sentence for a Black man convicted of property crimes.

This man’s sentence serves no legitimate penal purpose. Mr. Bryant was sentenced to life in prison for unsuccessfully attempting to make off with somebody else’s hedge clippers. Since his conviction in 1997, Mr. Bryant’s incarceration has cost Louisiana taxpayers approximately $518,667. Arrested at thirty-eight, Mr. Bryant has already spent nearly twenty-three years in prison and is now over sixty years old. If he lives another twenty years, Louisiana taxpayers will have paid almost one million dollars to punish Mr. Bryant for his failed effort to steal a set of hedge clippers.

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November 2020

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