Roughly 300 people in Louisiana prisons were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles.
But these offenders, convicted of capital crimes, could be given parole hearings and an opportunity for release under a set of bills being considered by the Louisiana Legislature.
The impetus for Senate Bills 127 and 367 are two U.S. Supreme Court cases that are putting pressure on Louisiana’s judicial system. In 2012, the high court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for an offender younger than 18 is a violation of the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
This year, the Supreme Court further ruled, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, that the original ruling should be applied retroactively.
Jill Pasquarella, attorney with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said those people sentenced as children “are entitled to some type of relief, either through the Legislature or through the courts.”
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary C Committee advanced without objection Senate Bill 127, by state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metarie. The other bill, by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, was identical. Claitor set his aside and the panel focused on Martiny’s measure.
SB 127 would affect only those juvenile offenders convicted of first- and second-degree murder. It says after 35 years behind bars, they would be eligible for a parole hearing — if they meet other benchmarks, including keeping a clean behavioral record and getting a GED or taking other educational programs.
However, the members of the Parole Board have the discretion to rule that an offender should not be released.
Without action, the state is likely to endure a variety of expensive lawsuits from inmates. But there was some disagreement about how soon a person sentenced as a juvenile should be considered for parole.
Nathan Albritton, of Natchitoches Parish, recounted crimes committed against his family by a juvenile more than 20 years ago.
In 1993, 15-year-old Jason Pilcher and a girl ran away from their Shreveport homes and stole a car and two guns. They knocked on the door of the Albrittons’ home and requested to use the phone and have a drink of water.
After Albritton’s family accommodated both requests, Pilcher shot Nathan’s wife, Phyllis, in the head. Pilcher then followed Nathan’s son, Justin, into his room where he shot and killed him while Justin tried to defend himself with a pellet gun.
Pilcher then chased Albritton’s 13-year-old daughter out of the house, firing at her as she ran across a field. The daughter survived.
“I’d like you to think of my 11-year-old child, the horror he went through before he died, seeing his mother blown apart,” Albritton told the committee slowly and through tears.
Natchitoches Parish District Attorney Van Kyzar told the committee on Tuesday that the murders were entirely random and Albritton’s family was destroyed because they were trying to be helpful to the two young teens.
Kyzar said he knows lawmakers have to take action, but he said they should hold the line firmly at serving 35 years before parole could be considered.
“Those weren’t just targets at an arcade, they were real people, people who had dreams and their whole lives in front of them,” Albritton said. “When I hear the argument that these people were put in jail wrongly, or sentenced wrongly, I think that the people of the state of Louisiana convicted them and tried them and I hate to see them turned out on to the public.”
But Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice for the Ex-Offender, an advocacy group based in New Orleans, said 35 years was too long to wait before giving juvenile offenders an opportunity for a parole hearing.
“Their minds aren’t fully developed,” Reilly said. “They should be treated with leniency and given an opportunity to be reformed at an earlier stage in their life.”
He said the offenders should instead be given a parole hearing after serving about 10 to 15 years of their sentence.
Pasquarella said other states have a range of between 15 and 40 years of serving a sentence before parole hearings are offered. But she said 40 years is the extreme outlier.
Claitor told Albritton and his family that even with the Supreme Court decision that Pilcher would likely stay behind bars.
“The Supreme Court decision said life without parole is appropriate for the worst of the worst and you’ll have an opportunity to say that before the Parole Board,” Claitor told Albritton. “It’s my expectation that parole wouldn’t be appropriate in that situation.”
The measure advanced without opposition from the committee and makes its way to the full Senate. But state Sen. Jonathan “J.P.” Perry, R-Kaplan, said he plans on proposing an amendment later to extend the sentence requirement past 35 years to perhaps 40 or 45 years before getting a parole hearing.