A new law could give some of Louisiana's juvenile lifers a chance at freedom, part of a years-long push to rethink prison sentences in the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country.
Act 99, which passed with bipartisan support, grants automatic parole eligibility to offenders convicted of crimes as children once they have served 25 years and met certain pre-release qualifications. Lawmakers aimed to provide "virtual" juvenile lifers — those serving so many decades behind bars that their time becomes a functional life sentence — the chance to prove they've changed their ways before they reach old age.
Some juvenile justice advocates think the language of the law goes even further. They believe it essentially abolishes the sentence of "life without parole" for children and clears the way for those who received such a sentence to receive a parole hearing automatically.
"This changes so many people’s lives," said Renée Slajda, communications director for the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, a New Orleans-based nonprofit. "It gives every child an opportunity for a second chance. It gives hope to a lot of people and their families who were sentenced as children to die in prison."
Key players who helped pass the bill, however, say it was never meant to apply to sentences of juvenile life without parole, just those with lengthy sentences.
"I don’t even think that we could have passed how (some) are attempting to apply the bill," said Rep. Edward "Ted" James, a Democrat from Baton Rouge, who was the primary author of Act 99. "We could never pass (such legislation) in this climate."
While the Louisiana law's impact remains uncertain, it is part of a national reckoning over whether it is ever morally justified to incarcerate children for the rest of their lives.
"Right now, when you give a child a life sentence or a virtual life sentence, you’re saying at the front end, you can never change," Slajda said. "You are irredeemable. Your life no longer matters."
Debunking the 'superpredator' myth
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark decision that sentencing juveniles to life without parole was unconstitutional and should only be applied in the rarest of cases.
Four years later, the court made that ruling retroactive.
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Suddenly, hundreds of inmates with criminal convictions imposed while they were teenagers — many of whom still carried their "life without parole" sentences as middle-aged and elderly adults — had the opportunity to appear before a judge to argue why they should be re-sentenced to a term that would make them parole-eligible.
It was a striking moment for a state that has the highest rate of people serving a sentence of juvenile life without parole in the country, according to the most recently available data collected by Senior Research Analyst Ashley Nellis with The Sentencing Project.
As scientists eventually learned the decision-making part of the brain doesn't fully develop until well into adulthood, the understanding of how trauma can influence children's actions also changed. Adverse childhood experiences, such as physical and sexual abuse, poverty and drug-addiction, can further endanger rational decisions in minds that are still maturing.
"Kids are impulsive, irrational, do horrible things at times when they’re young," said Andrew Hundley, executive director of the Louisiana Parole Project, himself a former juvenile lifer. "And as they grow older, they mature and develop whenever they have a strong support system."
Juvenile lifers who re-enter society on parole are unlikely to return to criminal activities, according to a recent study from Montclair State University. The report shows that the recidivism rate for juvenile lifers in Philadelphia was just shy of 1%.
Hundley, the first lifer paroled in Louisiana after serving almost two decades behind bars, now runs a nonprofit to help the formerly incarcerated transition successfully back into society. He has seen people who spent decades in prison transform into small business owners, state employees and members of local churches.
Advocates say old stereotypes and misunderstandings of how the adolescent mind works set the stage for harsh sentencing practices of the 1980s, when child criminals were seen as irredeemable.
"The 'superpredator' myth has completely shaped the past 40 years of how we treat children in the justice system," Slajda said. "This idea that children — and particularly Black children — are evil, have no conscience and can never change."
'He never lost hope'
Shirley Davis has a room ready for her brother if he comes home.
"I bought him a TV and a nice, beautiful white comforter," she said.
It has been 40 years since her brother, Joe Brown, was convicted of first-degree murder as a teenager and taken to Angola, where he has spent his days praying he would one day return to his family. He is one of the juvenile lifers who advocates say could receive parole eligibility when Act 99 goes into effect Aug. 1.
"He never lost hope," his sister said. "Neither did I. Even when it looked bad, I still never gave up hope."
Brown was arrested after he robbed and killed a woman in November 1979 on a New Orleans sidewalk at the age of 17. He was later sentenced to life without the possibility of parole after initially being sentenced to death.
In recent years, Brown has been waiting for his chance to appear before a judge and argue he should be able to simply ask for his freedom before the parole board. His is one of the so-called "Miller/Montgomery" cases, named for the juvenile lifers in the watershed court decisions.
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The Louisiana Center for Children's Rights currently represents 62 of these clients, from children facing the potential life sentence without parole to adults hoping to have a re-sentencing hearing. These cases are notoriously difficult to fund and litigate, requiring time-consuming research and mitigation work, much like when a client faces the death penalty.
"You’re recreating a life history, and in a lot of cases, it’s very hard to find those records," said Lindsay Blouin, deputy chief district defender in East Baton Rouge Parish. "Sometimes those records don’t exist."
Act 99 has the potential to erase the expensive need for JLWOP representation and fast-track lifers to the parole board, skipping the re-sentencing step entirely.
Attorney Emily Ratner of the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights says Brown is emblematic of the juvenile lifers who have changed during their time in prison.
While assessments in the court record show Brown struggled with an intellectual disability as child, Ratner reported that during his time at Angola, Brown has learned to read and write.
"People who have been put in Angola, [who have] been totally thrown away, keep working, keep growing, keep improving," Ratner said. "They keep moving and fighting for the next day."
'This is a good thing'
Some, however, are less certain about whether the new law applies to those sentenced to life without parole.
Representatives of the Louisiana District Attorney's Association, which supported the legislation, argue the law will not apply to these clients.
"I suspect there will be people who attempt to judicially enforce this or superimpose it on LWOP offenders. That will be met with legal resistance," said Loren Lampert, executive director of LDAA. "If amending the statute becomes necessary, we stand prepared to seek that remedy."
Lampert said his group backed the bill — in concert with the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights — because some "virtual lifers" were having to wait longer than actual lifers to get a chance at parole.
"This was a time when all the stakeholders came together and tried to do the right thing," he said. "Everybody recognized this was an inequity that needed to be fixed. This is a good thing that we all came together and worked to address that inequity."
Nevertheless, Slajda said LCCR "did not realize that the agreed-to language was not the language that was ultimately filed and passed by the Legislature," language she says broadens the scope of parole eligibility.
In recent Zoom meetings, members of the Louisiana Public Defender Board debated if and how the law would apply to the Miller/Montgomery clients, though no consensus has been reached. State Public Defender Rémy Voisin Starns hopes to clarify the law's impact in the coming weeks.
"Things are still so in flux about Miller/Montgomery right now that we really don’t have any place to stand," Starns said in the last board meeting of the fiscal year.
As the coronavirus pandemic has raged on, public defenders have been facing a budget crisis. Miller/Montgomery cases have featured prominently in board discussions, from cutting contracts with nonprofits like LCCR to redistributing the cases to district defenders. Some point out the public defenders' financial woes would be partially alleviated if Act 99 removes the need for representation.
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Advocates agree that virtual juvenile lifers are often overlooked when it comes to criminal justice reforms, though they still hope the law will reach all those who entered the system as children.
"Louisiana moving so far forward on this shows that we understand the issue of brain development and the fact that children can redeem themselves as they grow up," Slajda said. "If we understand that, we have to understand that applies to every child."