093018 Juvenile lifers status.jpg

The state board that supervises public defenders has entered a $1 million contract with a children's rights group to represent more than 80 juvenile offenders awaiting resentencing hearings after district attorneys filed to retain their life without parole prison terms — sentences deemed unconstitutional except in rare cases by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016.

The Louisiana Public Defender Board last week made final its partnership with the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, which will provide defense work for all of Louisiana's juvenile lifer cases still pending, in which prosecutors oppose new sentences that include a chance at parole. 

“These are very, very focused cases, and it needs a particular expertise which the folks at LCCR have," said Jay Dixon, the state public defender. "You need folks that have experience in juvenile cases but also in (this specific) litigation."

About 300 inmates in Louisiana were impacted by the 2016 Supreme Court ruling that found mandatory life without parole sentences for youth offenders unconstitutional, even in prior cases. A state law later provided two-thirds of those prisoners, all convicted of murders committed at 17 or younger, new sentences that included a chance at release. The remaining cases, nearly 100 of them, need a court hearing to determine a new sentence due to the prosecutors' opposition.  

Since that law passed, 11 of those resentencing hearings have been held, according to LCCR numbers. In all but one, a judge granted the juvenile offender a new sentence of life with the opportunity of parole. That leaves more than 80 other cases that still require such a hearing, which state law mandates should include both the prosecution and defense introducing any "aggravating and mitigating evidence" relevant to the crime, the character of offender, mitigating circumstances, criminal history or the offender's upbringing, as well as expert testimony. 

“The Supreme Court said (only) the rare and uncommon child deserved to be sentenced to death in prison," said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights' executive director. "Many of these individuals have been in prison for decades at this point, so there’s a tremendous amount of information and we’re reaching back in time…. You can imagine how much time and effort that expense that process takes."

And that's quite a burden for many cash-strapped public defender offices to bear, Dixon said, likening the preparation needed to a death sentence case. Clark-Rizzio said his team of attorneys will provide that statewide, able to streamline the process and become the few experts for what should be one-time resentencing hearings. 

"We’re humbled by this opportunity," Clark-Rizzio said. "We would like to do this well and give them the representation that they deserve.”

The Louisiana Center for Children's Rights will also partner with local public defenders to assist in the defense of the almost 20 juveniles, not yet convicted or sentenced, who are facing a potential life without parole sentence, Clark-Rizzio said. He said in these cases, their attorneys will partner directly with local public defenders, who will inevitably be involved in future cases as they come up. They will take entire responsibility for the already-sentenced juvenile cases, which are finite.

The contract includes the majority of the $1.34 million earmarked in the state budget for the defense of juvenile lifer in the resentencing hearings, but reserves about $300,000 for a common fund for expert witnesses or alternate counsel if a conflict with LCCR arises, Dixon said. All but one district defender, David Wallace in Beauregard Parish, signed onto the agreement to pull the state's resources for the centralized defense in these cases. 

Wallace said he didn't sign on only because his parish already addressed their sole such case, where the district attorney opposed a new sentence that include the opportunity for parole for a juvenile offender. 

“My lawyer already did the work, we got some experts on our own, we’ve done a good job with it," Wallace said. He said the hearing was held in July, but the judge has yet to rule on a new sentence. 

And while Clark-Rizzio said he is glad the organization will provide the defense for these juvenile lifers, he said he still wishes the money could have been spent elsewhere — had the legislation just granted all such offenders a new sentence that included parole. The Supreme Court has ruled multiple times in the last decades that children are inherently different from adults, their judgment and reasoning still developing, and therefore cannot be sentenced as harshly as adults, even for the most grievous crimes. 

“The legislators and DAs who have created this situation have created a pretty laborious process," Clark-Rizzio said. "We have a parole board that is set up to make this type of determination, and instead of relying on them to do that job, in a lot of cases we're now going to have a hearing in the court of law. ... We’re really left with a situation of doing a lot of work, when we know only in a handful of cases should this sentence be handed down."

But state Senator Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, who sponsored the bill in 2017 that created the guidelines to resentence juvenile lifers, said that discredits the original discretion from prosecutors. 

"The majority of the DAs were diligent in their work in the first place," Claitor said. He said he believes most prosecutors initially reserved murder charges only for the worst cases, which makes them more likely to oppose a new sentence now on the back end. And he said while many juvenile justice advocates point to the money spent on the resentencing hearings, they don't note the amount saved on the more than 200 juvenile lifer cases granted automatic new sentences without prosecutors. 

“All of these things would have been potentially litigated," Claitor said. "Did we not save money on the (almost 70 percent) that weren’t?"

And while Dixon admits the process could have gone worse, he said it is hard to not think how that money could have been better spent, helping improve defense in other cases or address their waitlist for capital defense. 

“We are spending $1.3 million to determine whether someone gets a hearing. Period. It's not whether or not somebody gets out, gets released from jail," Dixon said. "That’s a lot of money for a hearing, ... it could have been done more efficiently.”

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.