Kelly Orians is an attorney, a 2019 Rubinger Fellow and the co-director of the First 72+, a ground-breaking New Orleans re-entry program for people returning from incarceration. Orians spoke with LISC about the state of criminal justice in Louisiana, the challenges and successes her clients experience, and how her organization is helping lift the burden of entrenched bureaucracy and predatory debt that keeps so many people from gaining real freedom after release.
Kelly Orians got an early start in the world of criminal justice reform in Louisiana, a state regrettably known as the incarceration capital of the world. Shortly after graduating from college, she began working with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana in New Orleans, pushing to end the practice of sentencing young people to life without parole. Through those efforts, she met and began collaborating with Calvin Duncan, a New Orleans native who was incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit.
While earning her law degree, Orians teamed up with Duncan (he was exonerated and released in 2008, having spent nearly 30 years in prison) and, together with a group of other formerly incarcerated men, got to work forming an extraordinary non-profit. Their organization, The First 72+, is dedicated to breaking the cycle of recidivism and helping people returning from prison rebuild their lives and work toward financial stability. It provides temporary housing and other direct services for people immediately after their release. “First 72,” in fact, refers to the hours just after release from incarceration, when returning citizens are most likely to be picked up by law enforcement—because of homelessness, lack of money and/or unresolved or erroneous prior warrants).
In addition to these stabilization services, the group also promotes economic empowerment through a division within the organization called Rising Foundations, which offers creative programs like small business incubation, zero-interest lending, financial life skills education, and credit building. Through all these programs, Orians and her team are taking aim at the state’s high recidivism rate, which is almost always a consequence of flawed legal bureaucracy and the dearth of support for formerly incarcerated people and their families.
You’d been involved with criminal justice reform for a while before you began focusing on financial stability work with people returning from prison. What put you on to your current path?
Louisiana was greatly impacted by Graham v Florida, [a 2010 Supreme Court decision Supreme Court holding that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses]. We were the first state in the country to have two people get re-sentenced and released from prison as a result of the ruling, and I was the person who was tapped to drive up to the state penitentiary in Angola to pick them up.
This turned out to be the first time I’d really considered what life after prison was like for people. On the way up there, I thought my career could never be more successful than it was at that moment. I had sat in a courtroom alongside Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, helping to implement a historic Supreme Court ruling and get the first two people in the country released. I thought that was as good as it could get. And then, 30 minutes into our drive home, one of the men turned to me and asked where he was going to get the medication he took every day for a heart condition. He had no money and a very limited support system to return to. At that moment, everything shattered. I realized we had a real long road ahead of us in terms of the work that needed to be done.
Was that what inspired you to get involved with the First 72+?
That was part of it. Calvin Duncan and I had been working together for years on sentencing reform [while he was in prison] and as soon as he came home, on January 7, 2011, he was in the same boat as just about everyone who had come before him—being homeless, jobless, financially insecure. So he and I started strategizing about what could be done to help people when they come home—not just in terms of giving them a place to live, but in terms of supporting long-term financial security.
You have said that the leading cause of mass incarceration in Louisiana is recidivism.
That’s right. More than half the incarcerated population in the state has been in prison before. Think about that: these are all people who have been released and within five years, one out of every two has returned to prison.
Can you describe how that happens?
For one, the disorganization of the system is something that just continues to hold people back. There are these literal things that are still attached to you, pulling you down every single day. Debt is one of the biggest. People who are incarcerated owe money to various agencies.
In many cases, they also come out of prison still wanted by law enforcement agencies. You might have old traffic tickets that you haven’t dealt with, so your license is suspended, and you can be arrested for these delinquent tickets, as well as for being caught driving with a suspended license.
Additionally, a lot of my clients are released with old criminal warrants still pending—we call them "ghost warrants". The original matter never got dealt with, so they leave prison still essentially mid-trial on old cases that weren’t bound together before they were shipped upstate. They might go into our police department to get a background check for employment, or for housing, or even for an expungement of their record—and get arrested on the spot on a 20-year-old warrant, after having already served years in prison. If they aren’t connected to an organization like ours, which has a team of advocates ready at a moment’s notice to dispatch and sort things out with judges, they could find themselves back in prison on a brand new—old—case.
What are the biggest obstacles your clients face, apart from possible re-incarceration?
Let’s say you did get all your matters bound together. You still have a litany of things you have to deal with. You have a parole and probation officer you have to report to – and pay $65 a month. You might have a judge you have to report to, which requires paying court fees. You also have residency and employment requirements, as well a drug testing, for your post-release supervision. You might also have to do community service.
Maintaining employment is a requirement of post-release supervision, and also just of basic survival, and most people coming home aren’t usually able to work just one job. A fulltime minimum wage job doesn’t support anybody, let alone someone coming home from prison who also has a ton of debt, and more often than not, children and other people depending on them.
So you may have multiple jobs you’re reporting to with varying hours. It’s so hard not to fall back into confusion and chaos a) because of your incarceration and post-release supervision, and b) because of living a lifestyle that you’ve never known before.
A lot of my clients have never held a 9 to 5 job, they never followed a schedule, they never lived a conventional life, they’ve never paid their own bills. All of that takes time to learn. We have grown men coming out of prison who haven’t ever been taught these skills and there’s no tolerance for them not to immediately be a perfect citizen.
And these are the issues your organizations are helping people take on.
Exactly. We had to figure out a way to address that, to get at recidivism from the back end. We believe we need to be pushing the envelope on what’s considered success after incarceration. That it shouldn’t just be a low-wage job and a rental apartment. That we should be creating opportunities for formerly incarcerated people to grow and thrive and transition from being liabilities in the communities to which they return to being asset builders in those communities.
You have created an outreach program to let returning citizens know about their right to a provisional license and help them get one. The Office of Motor Vehicles took issue with the phrase “returning citizen” in your literature and wanted you to use “ex-offender,” which is pejorative. Has this been resolved? Have you been able to distribute the brochure?
I am happy to say we have made a lot of progress in building a good relationship with the Office of Motor Vehicles, especially compared to where we were when we got into an unfortunate disagreement about labeling formerly incarcerated people “ex-offenders”. And yes, they did finally agree to not use that pejorative label in their literature, and we have officially published the brochure! This was one of many battles we have faced as we have tried to improve access to a driver’s license and finalize this publication, and although it might seem small or nit-picky, it was, in my opinion, very important. Language shapes our reality and it is very powerful.
Labeling people “ex-offenders” or “convicts” is just one example of how the overall discriminatory attitude towards formerly incarcerated people is fundamental. What we’ve been able to change is not just through regulations, but through community organizing, public education, debunking a lot of myths, and respectfully educating people about how in big and small ways they are contributing to this toxic culture. The theory is that when you go to prison, you’re going to go through a cleansing process—you enter, serve your time and then come out and start over. It’s going to be challenging but you should be able to start over.
That just couldn’t be farther from the truth. Not only is discrimination against formerly incarcerated people legal, but in the small ways that it is illegal, it’s almost entirely unregulated.
In the midst of all the hurdles, what are some of the most gratifying successes of the work?
One of the most memorable moments, for me, took place in the waiting room of a branch of the Office of Motor Vehicles. This was early on, before we had made much progress towards streamlining access to a provisional driver’s license. We had reached an impasse with the administration, and were considering litigation, but knew that lawsuits would only make our clients wait longer and definitely strain relationship-building with the Office. Six of my clients and I made the decision to sit in the waiting room and refuse to leave until they were all issued licenses in compliance with the law.
We had no idea how it would turn out, but while we talked, my clients reminded me that even just having someone stand up for them was a victory. In the end, the office relented and issued the licenses.
When we were called up to the desk, the branch manager spoke to me and she started crying. She told me her brother was in prison and about to come home, and it pained her see this preview into the struggles he was going to face. I gave her my card and told her as soon as he gets out to come to our office. In that moment, I was reminded that many of the obstacles we face aren’t because of nefarious intent. Many of them are due to the fact that people in power don’t know the power they have to make a difference. Sometimes the most important part of my job is to educate those folks about what they can do and motivate them to act.
Beyond that, there are victories all the time: seeing clients get housing, get good jobs, start small businesses—take the reins of their financial lives. We’ve provided a safe and stable place to stay to more than 70 people in our transitional housing program, and more than 600 have gone through our other outreach programs.
We also just celebrated a milestone related to my LISC fellowship: we cleared a total of $100,000 in court-related debt. This was standing in the way of people rejoining the workforce because of wage garnishing or suspended driver’s licenses or other outstanding criminal matters that were related to owing money to various court systems.
Congratulations! How has the Rubinger Fellow helped?
The issues that my clients and I have been facing hadn’t really been recognized by a larger audience as a struggle, as something that we could name and say: “this is a problem.” Being awarded a fellowship like this means that I can sit down at different tables and say I’m a Rubinger Fellow and my project is improving access to employment by removing barriers to driver’s licenses—a problem that continues to exclude people from the workforce. The fellowship validates it as an important issue, whereas before it might have been perceived as this nuanced and complicated thing that’s a sideline to mainstream reentry work. In fact, it’s the beating heart of what we do.
They come from all corners of the country, and all share a deep commitment to helping their communities thrive. Meet the 2019 Fellows.