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Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge

Eighty-nine Louisiana inmates, who are serving life sentences for murder convictions they received while juveniles, could be eligible for parole consideration if the Louisiana Legislature approves a bill to curb life sentences for youths.

Baton Rouge Republican Sen. Dan Claitor's Senate Bill 16 overcame its first hurdle on Tuesday when it passed favorably out of Senate Judiciary C committee without objection. SB16 now goes to the full Senate.

The bill is backed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is championing a legislative prison reform package stemming from recommendations of a task force to reduce the prison population and increase opportunities for rehabilitation and parole eligibility. It's the first of the measures that would revamp the state's criminal justice system to receive a hearing and a vote. 

Claitor's proposal addresses juvenile life sentences in two parts. First, it retroactively make all inmates, who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles, eligible for a hearing after serving 30 years if they meet other conditions including good behavior and participation in rehabilitation programs.

There are about 300 people in Louisiana prisons who were sentenced to life without parole and were between the ages of 14 and 17 when they committed their crimes. Of those 300, 89 have already served at least 30 years and could become eligible for parole with the passage of the proposed law.

However, proponents of Claitor's bill stress that parole eligibility is not the same as release.

"This doesn't allow for the release of anyone," said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, the executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights. "It just gives people an opportunity for parole."

The second part of the proposed law applies to new convictions. If a juvenile is convicted of second-degree murder, they could no longer be considered for life without parole. But if they are convicted of first-degree murder, a district attorney could call for a hearing prior to sentencing to determine whether life without parole could be considered. 

While no members of the Senate committee on Monday formally opposed advancing the bill, almost everyone expressed concerns with the legislation. And several legislators promised to come back with amendments to be heard on the floor.

Criminal justice reform advocates said the legislation didn't go far enough. Clark-Rizzio and others said eligibility for parole should be allowed sooner than 30 years, and that life without parole sentences should be eliminated entirely for all prospective juvenile convictions. 

But some Republicans on the committee felt the district attorneys should maintain discretion to seek the harshest penalties when it fits the crime. 

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, said he was skeptical of prison reform measures. "If we go too far and we let people out who have committed murder there could be a huge backlash," he said.

Sen. Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan, said he was frustrated that inmates' rights were being put before the victims. "I don't think we've talked 30 seconds about any of the victims of these crimes," he said after a two hour debate.

The legislation is largely motivated because the state is in violation of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

One court ruling, Miller v. Alabama found that life without the possibility of parole for juveniles was considered cruel and unusual punishment and could only be used for the rare, incorrigible cases of juvenile convictions. A subsequent decision Montgomery v. Louisiana found that the prohibition on life sentences for juveniles should be applied retroactively. 

The state task force for criminal justice reform recommended the state eliminate life sentences without parole for all juveniles, which Claitor said he wouldn't rule out.

Though there was much disagreement about the merits of the bill, a similar piece of legislation nearly became law last year, until Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, blocked a vote by filibustering in the final minutes of the session. 

Peterson said the proposed law, which had come together as a compromise bill at the very end of the session, required more vetting.

Claitor, a Republican, said his mission is aligning the state's laws with the federal mandates and avoiding costly litigation. He said he expects a number of amendments to his bill both seeking to make parole eligibility more and less accessible to the offenders. 

"The Supreme Court has told us that (our law) doesn't pass the muster," Claitor said. "The price of doing nothing is too expensive in my view."

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.