Last week, in a 3-0 vote, the Louisiana Committee on Parole decided to grant Louisiana man Fair Wayne Bryant parole. Bryant was sentenced to life in prison after stealing a pair of hedge clippers in 1997. The severity of the sentence was due to Louisiana’s “habitual offender” laws, which provide harsher sentences to those with previous convictions.
Bryant’s record, at the time of his trial for the theft of the hedge clippers, included four felonies—one categorized as violent under Louisiana state law, and three nonviolent. His four convicted felonies included, according to AP News: “a 1979 attempted armed robbery conviction… and three subsequent nonviolent crimes — possession of stolen things in 1987, attempted forgery of a $150 check in 1989 and simple burglary in 1992.”
Prior to being granted parole last week, the Louisiana Supreme Court had declined 5-1 to review Bryant’s case just this past summer. Chief Justice Bernette Johnson was the sole vote in favor of reviewing the case and released a harsh dissenting opinion in which she described Bryant’s sentence as “excessive” and “disproportionate.”
She points to his first conviction for armed robbery, for which he was sentenced to ten years, and notes that he had no more violent convictions. The rest of his crimes “[were] an effort to steal something. Such petty theft is frequently driven by the ravages of poverty or addiction, and often both. It is cruel and unusual to impose a sentence of life in prison at hard labor for the criminal behavior which is most often caused by poverty or addiction.”
Johnson also made note of the price of Bryant’s prison sentence, which had already cost over half a million dollars, writing: “Arrested at 38, Mr. Bryant has already spent nearly 23 years in prison and is now over 60 years old. If he lives another 20 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.”
Habitual offender laws have been the subject of criticism from activists and drawn calls for legal reform. In her dissenting opinion, Johnson called habitual offender laws a “modern manifestation” of the Pig Laws that arose after Reconstruction.
They have also been critiqued by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which called for these statutes to be abolished in the aftermath of the Louisiana Supreme Court’s refusal to review Bryant’s case. They also cited statistics suggesting that 64% of people in prison under habitual offender laws in Louisiana are “there for nonviolent crimes.”
According to AP News, Bryant’s parole conditions include meetings with Alcoholics Anonymous, a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., and community service. He will also work with the Louisiana Parole Project, which helps prisoners who have served long prison sentences re-adjust.
Afterwards, Bryant is expected to stay with his brother, who lives in Shreveport.
In a statement on the matter, the ACLU of Louisiana reported that their executive director, Alanah Odoms, said: “While nothing can make up for the years Mr. Bryant lost to this extreme and unjust sentence, today’s decision by the parole board is a long-overdue victory for Mr. Bryant, his family, and the cause of equal justice for all… Now it is imperative that the Legislature repeal the habitual offender law that allows for these unfair sentences, and for district attorneys across the state to immediately stop seeking extreme penalties for minor offenses.”