Months after a new law was passed that some advocates believed would effectively abolish the sentence of life without parole for juveniles in Louisiana, lawmakers are taking steps to narrow its scope.
The first law, which took effect in August, grants automatic parole eligibility to those convicted of crimes as children once they have served 25 years and meet certain pre-release qualifications. Some juvenile justice advocates cautiously celebrated when they read the bill, believing it cleared the way for all juvenile lifers to receive an automatic parole hearing.
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But state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, who sponsored the original bill, said it was only meant to apply to "virtual" juvenile lifers, or those serving so many decades behind bars that their time becomes a functional life sentence. It was not meant to apply to those who were sentenced to life without parole as children for the most heinous crimes, such as murder.
The new legislation clarifies this misunderstanding, restricting parole eligibility to the former group, James said.
James said he would support abolishing the sentence of life without parole for juveniles, but that's not what he told other lawmakers his bill would do. He was unable to shepherd the original bill through the Legislature because he contracted the coronavirus.
“The bill that’s passed, policy-wise, I support it. I do," James said. "However, my word is more important than my politics.”
In a meeting of the Louisiana House Criminal Justice Committee on Thursday, several advocates said they thought the bill should stand as is.
“Act 99 does a lot of good, and no harm. It’s as simple as that,” said the Rev. Alexis Anderson, a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition. "Even if you accidentally got to the right place, take the win.”
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Several formerly incarcerated juvenile lifers also testified about how they had changed throughout their time in prison and grown to be productive members of society eager to give back.
However, Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said abolishing life without parole entirely was never on the table. Instead, prosecutors saw an injustice where virtual juvenile lifers were still serving sentences for decades while other juvenile lifers had the chance to seek parole after 25 years — a flaw they hoped to address with Act 99.
Lampert thanked James for filing his new bill, which he supports. “We look forward to an opportunity to fix this and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he added.
While James made clear the new bill was about keeping his word to the parties who supported the original legislation, others emphasized they saw the move as a moral issue separate from ambiguous language.
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On the House floor, Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, said that, while he commends James for keeping his word, he does not agree with the new bill.
"I don’t want it to be lost on this body what we’re deliberating," he said. "We are dealing with children, and no one is beyond redemption.”
The bill cleared committee and sailed through the House with a near-unanimous vote in favor. It now goes to the Senate.
Attorneys with other organizations, meanwhile, underscored the need to follow the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says a sentence of juvenile life without parole should only be applied in the rarest of cases.
Under this decision, teens newly arrested for murder in Louisiana were given the chance to appear before a judge to argue why they should be sentenced to a term that would make them parole-eligible.
When that ruling became retroactive four years later, middle-aged or elderly inmates who had been children when given life sentences also lined up for a re-sentencing hearing, holding out hope they would be approved to appear before the parole board one day.
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Act 99 removed the need for those hearings, which attempts to predict someone's future ability to rehabilitate, and sent defendants straight to the parole board, which takes someone's entire institutional history and improvement efforts into account.
"Based on psychological studies, based on statistics, we are very bad at predicting whether someone is going to be dangerous 25 years from now," said Madalyn Wasilczuk, director of the juvenile defense clinic at LSU. "Let’s take that decision out of the hands of prosecutors and put it in the hands of the parole board."
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