Trials and Error

Justice Scuttled

Louisiana was about to fix one of the state’s most shameful laws, but politics got in the way.

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When it comes to reforming juvenile life without parole, Louisiana has lagged behind red states like Texas, Mississippi, and Utah.

MWCPhoto/iStock

For a few hopeful weeks over the past month, juvenile justice advocates were cautiously optimistic that Louisiana lawmakers would change one of the state’s most shameful laws.

Louisiana’s prisons house approximately 300 people who were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives behind bars for crimes they committed as juveniles. On April 26, despite the vehement opposition of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, state senators advanced Senate Bill 16, legislation that would eliminate juvenile life without parole as a punishment and make those 300 people eligible for parole after they’ve served 25 years. But instead of accepting the Senate’s legislation, a House subcommittee passed a watered-down version of the bill that was more suitable to the LDAA. Passed in the subcommittee by a 12–2 vote on May 10, the new bill allows district attorneys to maintain life without parole for those 300 prisoners sentenced as children who are currently behind bars. They would also be allowed to dish out such sentences to juveniles who are convicted of first-degree murder in the future. (As of now, juveniles who are convicted of first- or second-degree murder are eligible for life without parole in Louisiana.)

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What’s more, the LDAA got similar changes stripped from a separate criminal justice reform package supported by Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has repeatedly called for a drastic overhaul of the entire justice system. Edwards conceded to dropping the critical reform as a means of compromise

When it comes to reforming juvenile life without parole, Louisiana has lagged behind red states like Texas, Mississippi, and Utah. Orleans Parish, which includes New Orleans, is one of five counties with the largest concentration of such sentences in the U.S,  according to the Phillips Black Project.

The vote in the state Senate seemed to indicate that Louisiana legislators finally understood and agreed with common-sense notions of the diminished culpability of youthful offenders. A growing body of legal experts, criminal justice advocates, scientists, and psychologists have found that young people who wind up in the criminal justice system aren’t inherently violent or lawless. A Sentencing Project survey of juvenile lifers found that nearly 80 percent “witnessed violence in their homes” and 47 percent were victims of physical abuse.

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The United States Supreme Court has also been moving toward the elimination of harsh punishments for children. In 2012’s Miller v. Alabama, the court ruled that juvenile life without parole should be used extremely sparingly. As the court later explained, it would only be “the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible.” In the 2016 ruling Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court made its Miller decision retroactive, ruling that those sentenced as juveniles before 2012 should also have a chance at parole, so long as they’re not judged to be in that small group for whom rehabilitation is an impossibility.

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Although 13 states—including carceral strongholds like Texas and Arkansas—eliminated juvenile life without parole after Miller, the Louisiana Legislature didn’t go that far. Under the current law, implemented after the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling, some juvenile lifers are now eligible for parole after serving 35 years behind bars. Those who are granted the possibility of parole still face significant challenges to leave prison walls. In addition to time served, the parole board considers prisoners’ criminal history, involvement in correctional education and job programs, and “conduct” and “attitude” before it decides someone is worthy of release.     

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When Republican Sen. Dan Claitor introduced his reform bill earlier this year, it didn’t aim to eliminate juvenile life without parole entirely. Claitor’s legislation originally gave the possibility of parole to those who’ve been in prison for 30 years. But before it passed, the legislation was amended by Republican Sen. Danny Martiny such that it would do away with juvenile life without parole altogether—a move that signaled the potential for a major shift in a state with more juvenile life without parole sentences per capita than anywhere else in the U.S.

Alas, that potential will apparently remain unrealized. In Louisiana, it’s clear that juvenile life without parole is not being used in the rare manner the Supreme Court has called for. The Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition recently found that 81 percent of JLWOP-eligible youth in the state are still sentenced to die in prison. In 2016, the Louisiana Senate killed a bill that would have retroactively granted current juvenile lifers the chance at parole after 30 years. That year, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro secured a JLWOP sentence for a young man who, at the age of 15, accidentally shot and killed his friend (and co-conspirator) during a botched armed robbery.

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Even though the Supreme Court has steadily endorsed the idea of treating youth like youth rather than irredeemable criminals, Louisiana’s district attorneys have been adamantly opposed to change. “If you are a young individual who wants to be a young thug and acquire a firearm and use it against somebody, then you need to remember something very important,” Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier said of a 16-year-old last year. “When you acquire that firearm and pull that trigger, when you commit a big boy crime, you had best be ready to pay a big boy penalty, because when you commit a homicide of this nature, we’re going to put you in the penitentiary for the rest of your natural life.”

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In 2009, LDAA executive director Pete Adams went so far as to argue in favor of JLWOP for nonhomicide cases. He said that prosecuting offenders older than 15 is “not so much about deterrence as it is justice.” The following year, in Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court rejected Adams’ argument when it ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile life without parole for nonhomicide offenses.

Today in Louisiana, the LDAA’s anti-reform position is increasingly a lonely one. Elected prosecutors’ constituents, state business leaders, and even conservatives in the Louisiana Legislature support ending juvenile life without parole. When his bill passed in April, Sen. Claitor lamented the practice of declaring juvenile offenders “irredeemable.” “How do you declare them one of the ‘worst of the worst’ at the beginning [of their lives]?” he said. For the foreseeable future, Louisiana will find a way.

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