Since the Supreme Court in early 2016 once again ruled that Louisiana was — and had been for decades — unconstitutionally sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the opportunity for release, the state has made some substantial strides. But many advocates say Louisiana is far from where it should be.
Prior to a series of court rulings, there were about 300 so-called juvenile lifers in the state's prison system. Two-thirds have since been resentenced and about two dozen have won parole.
“I think Louisiana is moving in the right direction,” said Heather Renwick, the legal director for The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a DC advocacy group. “The fact that some people are home is certainly a step forward, … but the fact that the state continues to seek life without parole (in so many cases) is the most obvious way that Louisiana is out of step with the rest of the country.”
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The U.S. Supreme Court, in 2012, found that juveniles — except in the most rare and uncommon of cases — were redeemable and deserved a shot at a second chance. In 2016, the justices ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that this applies retroactively.
Legislators last year targeted inmates convicted of murders committed when they were 15, 16 or 17. Part of the criminal justice reform 10-bill package, Act 277, gave all of Louisiana's about 300 juvenile lifers the automatic opportunity for parole, but in about a third of those cases district attorneys argued to maintain 'life means life' sentences.
While the majority of those 100 or so cases still await resolution from a judge, juvenile advocates are also monitoring how Louisiana is actually implementing the new sentences and whether it is providing a meaningful opportunity for release through parole.
"The (parole) hearings are moving at a slow pace,” said Kerry Myers, the deputy director for Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit that assists the juvenile lifers with their parole hearings and, if granted, their reentry into society. “There are states that have done completely the opposite, they’re holding hearings, they're expediting the process.”
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In Louisiana, 23 juvenile lifers had been released on parole as of late September, primarily men in their 50s and 60s who had served decades in prison, according to the Department of Corrections, about 8 percent of the total population.
Meanwhile Pennsylvania, which had the nation's highest number of juvenile lifers in custody in 2016 with about 530, had released almost 30 percent, according to numbers from the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth from mid-September. And Michigan had released almost 15 percent of their initial 360 juvenile lifers, with 50 now free on parole. However, Renwick noted that Michigan officials have sought to keep life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders in a greater proportion of cases than Louisiana, about 60 percent, she said.
“I think (the Louisiana parole committee is) dealing with a little bit of a capacity problem; there are men and women who are in line who need to be seen,” said Jill Pasquarella, the supervising attorney for the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights.
There at least 40 juvenile lifers in Louisiana eligible for parole who meet all the state's requirements — which include serving 25 years, a good disciplinary record and completing many rehabilitative courses — but are still awaiting parole hearings, according to the Department of Corrections.
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However, Francis Abbott, the executive director of the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole, noted that more than half of those waiting have hearings scheduled in the next six months, and he maintained the board's commitment to hear these cases, which come on top of all their other parole and pardon hearings.
“We’re reviewing some violent offenses, we’re not going to rush through these cases,” Abbott said. “We don’t want anybody to call into question the integrity of one of our board hearings.”
Overall, Pasquarella said, she is generally glad to see the way the three-panel parole committee has handled the cases they've heard. Eight of the 31 cases heard by the parole committee at the end of September were denied, about 25 percent so far.
“I think that they are making efforts to be responsible, reasonable and thoughtful and that is encouraging, and yet there have been decisions that are extremely concerning for us,” Pasquarella said, pointing to some of the denials, like the case of Henry Montgomery. His parole was denied despite being the case the Supreme Court cited in its arguments for why juvenile offenders deserve the opportunity of a second chance.
Still, Keith Nordyke, an attorney who has specialized in parole representation and is a founder of Louisiana Parole Project, said the inches of progress are positive.
“Any institutional change is going to take time to implement,” Nordyke said. "Frankly we’ve got to pat the Parole Project on the back because I don’t think the board would have been as comfortable releasing many of these cases without having our guys at the front gate to pick them up, hold their hands and re-introduce them to society in a slow, measured way.”
That support from the Louisiana Parole Project ensures juvenile lifers remain on the overwhelmingly positive paths they've created for themselves in prison, said Bob Lancaster, also an attorney and founder of the nonprofit. A disproportionate number of the juvenile lifers are prison trustees or work high-stakes jobs.
"The juvenile clients really, really have changed and all of them have done really well in prison," he said. "They’ve all become model prisoners and they don’t pose a risk."