Lawmakers have reached a compromise, that neither side is fully happy with, on a contentious bill that will curb life without parole sentences for juveniles.
The Legislature has been under pressure in recent years to pass a law changing the harsh penalty because the state is in violation of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions. One court ruling found that sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole was considered cruel and unusual punishment and should only be used in rare cases. A subsequent decision targeting Louisiana, found that the prohibition on life sentences for juveniles needed to be applied retroactively to inmates already in jail with the sentence.
All 10 bills of a dramatic overhaul of Louisiana's criminal justice system have passed both …
So for two years, the Legislature has toggled over how to fix the law to meet constitutional muster, while appeasing law enforcement officials who are reluctant to ease penalties on the violent offenders.
Senate Bill 16, by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, has been amended repeatedly. The Senate changed the bill to effectively eliminate the ability to sentence juveniles to life without parole, and the House restored the sentence and gave prosecutors more ability to retain the sentence retroactively.
After going through negotiations, the final version of the bill will eliminate the sentence for juveniles convicted of second-degree murder but retain it for first-degree murder. For inmates who are already in jail serving life without parole, the individual prosecutors in the cases can give them a hearing to determine if they should continue to be denied parole. Otherwise, they will be parole eligible after 25 years.
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"The district attorneys are not thrilled with this, but they're supporting it," Claitor said. "This is a serious compromise that's taken a lot of work, and I can tell you no one is going to have a parade over this."
But Aaron Clark-Rizzio, executive director for the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, said the compromise was a failure.
"For the past five years, Louisiana has failed to comply with the Supreme Court's mandate that almost no child be sentenced to die in prison. This legislation enables the state to stay on its misguided course, which in all likelihood will lead to further litigation and a directive to once again revisit our legislation," he said.
The Senate approved the changes to the bill 25-11 on Wednesday. The measure still requires final approval from the House. The session must adjourn by 6 p.m. Thursday.