When Misty Jenkins was 16, she accompanied a boyfriend who robbed and killed a cab driver. Jenkins says she feared her boyfriend would kill her if she didn't ride in the car with him. At trial, a jury deemed her a "principal" in the crime and found her guilty of second-degree murder. She was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole, but Jenkins was released after she won an appeal. Today she is a wife, a mother of three children and a successful business owner. Proponents of justice reform say she is an example of why juvenile offenders should get a second chance.
While Jenkins won her freedom and has made a life for herself, other juvenile offenders face a future behind bars.
Elizabeth Pence walked into her Metairie living room on April 22, 2015 to find her husband, 56-year-old David Pence, shot to death and lying next to her son, 25-year-old Nicholas Pence, who took his last breaths as his mother called 911. The two had been killed with a shotgun fired at close range.
It took only two hours for the jury in the October 2016 trial to come back with a guilty verdict against Dexter Allen, who was 17 at the time of the crime. Last month, a Jefferson Parish judge sentenced the now-19-year-old Allen to life in prison with no chance at parole.
During sentencing, 24th Judicial District Court Judge Raymond Steib noted the crimes were "heinous" and said Allen showed no emotion "other than anger" during the trial. "There has been no remorse," the judge said.
With the judge's ruling, Allen joined about 300 other Louisiana inmates who are serving life terms without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. State law may change soon, offering at least some of those prisoners a chance at earning their freedom. Changing the law won't be easy, nor will it be easy for inmates to get out of jail — even if the law does change.
There was a time when Louisiana law mandated life imprisonment without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence for those convicted of second-degree murder — even if the offender was a juvenile. That time has passed in the wake of a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that declared such sentences — when applied to persons under age 18 at the time of the crime — "cruel and unusual punishment," which the U.S. Constitution prohibits.
In 2012, the court held that life sentences should apply only to the "rare juvenile offender" whose crime "reflects irreparable corruption" — what many call "the worst of the worst." In 2016, the court applied that standard retroactively, giving some inmates who were jailed as teens new hope for freedom.
In the wake of those rulings, state lawmakers are considering changes to Louisiana's juvenile sentencing laws to make them pass constitutional muster. During legislative debate on the proposed changes, several questions arose:
• Should Louisiana eliminate "life without parole" sentences for juveniles convicted of major violent crimes, including murder?
• At what point can a youthful offender truly be deemed "the worst of the worst" and beyond hope of rehabilitation?
• How many years of a life sentence should a "rehabilitated" juvenile offender serve before being eligible for parole?
Those questions have triggered intense debate among state lawmakers, reform advocates and law enforcement.
Senate Bill 16, by state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, would allow juvenile offenders convicted of murder, like Allen, to earn a parole hearing after serving 25 years behind bars — if they meet specific requirements aimed at showing they are model prisoners. Among other provisions, inmates convicted for crimes they committed as juveniles would have to prove good behavior and participate in prescribed rehabilitation programs.
Equally important, Claitor's bill as currently amended would eliminate post-conviction hearings on whether juvenile offenders are beyond rehabilitation and instead require parole hearings after inmates serve 25 years in jail. Under current Louisiana law, hearings to determine life sentences with or without parole occur soon after conviction — which many experts say is too soon to make such a determination, particularly for youthful offenders. Prosecutors, on the other hand, say immediate sentencing hearings in murder cases are legal, appropriate and more considerate of victims' families.
Claitor's bill has generated considerable debate as law enforcement goes toe-to-toe with youth advocates urging lawmakers to consider mitigating factors such as immaturity and lack of brain development when adopting juvenile sentencing laws. Supporters of Claitor's bill also emphasize that being eligible for parole does not mean an inmate would actually receive a parole.
The state Senate approved Claitor's bill on April 26, sending it to the House of Representatives. Claitor, a former prosecutor, also has advanced a bill to end Louisiana's death penalty.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, has introduced HB 45, which would make juvenile offenders sentenced to life eligible for parole after serving 30 years. Mack's bill also would allow prosecutors to seek life-without-parole sentences for those convicted of murder soon after that verdict is rendered.
Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys' Association, says the state's prosecutors oppose any measure that would allow the "worst of the worst" juvenile offenders to have an opportunity for parole in less than 30 years.
The prosecutors' group also wants to keep the current policy of holding immediate sentencing hearings for juvenile offenders, rather than years later. "Parole boards can change with every governor," Adams says. "We don't know what a parole board will look like in the future, and neither do victims' families. Life without parole [upon sentencing] is simply a statement to a victim's family that they will not have to endure a parole hearing."
The district attorneys' group supports Mack's bill, which was introduced at the association's request. Mack's bill has not been scheduled for a committee hearing.
Advocates with the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights praised Claitor's bill after it passed the Senate. "Today is an exciting day for Louisiana," Aaron Clark-Rizzio, the organization's executive director said. "With this vote, the Senate has decided to end death-in-prison sentences for children once and for all — a decision that will bring us into full compliance with the Supreme Court's rulings and finally provide clarity in the court's and people's lives.
"We urge the House to now put this issue to rest."
Adams says the House likely will favor Mack's bill but added, "I think some form of compromise bill will pass."
Under the Supreme Court's rulings, life sentences must be reserved for youthful offenders who are incapable of rehabilitation. Claitor says he has struggled with this notion.
"One of the issues I have is: How do you know who the 'worst of the worst' are in the beginning?" Claitor asked his fellow senators during debate. "When you're looking at a 15-year-old, do you know he's the worst of the worst without having the benefit of a look back?"
Claitor referred to Louisiana's practice of holding sentencing hearings soon after a verdict to determine whether a juvenile inmate is so morally corrupt and incorrigible that he or she doesn't deserve an opportunity for release. Without such a hearing, juveniles can't be sentenced to life without parole, even though they can be kept in jail if they are denied parole down the line.Because of the Supreme Court's rulings, Louisiana now must hold such hearings retroactively for juvenile offenders previously sentenced to mandatory life without parole.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has thrown his weight behind a comprehensive prison reform package put together by a task force aiming to reduce Louisiana's prison population. For years, Louisiana has led the world in the number of people incarcerated per capita. In part, the proposed reforms call for increasing parole eligibility and giving inmates greater opportunities for rehabilitation.
Some experts say the opportunity for rehabilitation is vital to a fair society. As examples, they point to former inmates like Jenkins, who were arrested as juveniles. Attorneys at the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights say Jenkins' story is a reminder of how a life can be ruined by actions that occur during a time when, scientists say, people are less able to weigh consequences than they are as adults.
Jenkins says she's not the same person she was when she was 16. Nor did she have the skills to cope with the situation then, she says, because she was too young to fully grasp what was about to happen.
"Everything didn't even seem real," Jenkins recalls. "I didn't even feel like I was in control. It almost felt like I was operating on autopilot. I was disconnected or in shock."
Dr. Kiana Andrew, a forensic psychiatrist at Tulane University School of Medicine, told the Senate there is a reason why Jenkins felt that way. According to Andrew, the area of the brain that controls such functions as self-regulation, reasoning, logic and planning doesn't fully develop until early adulthood. Therefore, she said, teenagers tend to be more impulsive. They also can be less sensitive to the idea of punishment.
"It's like driving," Andrew says. "In adolescence, the brakes are not even there yet."
DA spokesman Adams, however, says some teenagers deserve life sentences, and he argues that the U.S. Supreme Court allows it.
"Contrary to what's been implied, the U.S. Supreme Court clearly, clearly stated that juvenile life without parole is legal, acceptable and not cruel and usual punishment for those who are incorrigible, irreparably corrupt and among the worst of the worst," Adams says.
State Sens. Bodi White, R-Central, and Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan, say they worry about the families of murder victims. "The victims are, for the most part, people who were murdered," Perry says. "I think it's very important that that's not lost in what we're talking about."
According to Jill Pasquarella, an attorney at the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, Louisiana gives more children life without parole sentences per capita than any other state. More than 300 men and women are serving life without parole in Louisiana prisons after being sentenced as juveniles, she says, meaning their retroactive cases now require review under orders from the nation's highest court.
The law first started to change in 2012 with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which declared mandatory life sentences without parole for youths unconstitutional because it violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Four years later, the court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller's rules apply retroactively.
According to the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, Louisiana youth charged with serious offenses have been given life without parole 81 percent of the time since 2012. Advocates with the organization say the practice has had serious financial ramifications. They estimate the state could save millions if it reduced sentences and released rehabilitated inmates on supervised parole after they've served 25 years.
During legislative proceedings, lawmakers and advocates on both sides also discussed when sentencing hearings should be held for those already in jail. Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette Johnson said a parole board hearing would serve much the same purpose as an earlier sentencing hearing. "Of course, as we all know, the district attorneys who prosecuted these cases, the victims of crime, will all have adequate opportunity to oppose" early release, Johnson said.
Sen. White argued for earlier sentencing hearings for juvenile offenders already in jail, rather than waiting for parole hearings years down the road, even if it costs more money. He said he feared a "huge backlash" otherwise. "If we have to spend some more for a hearing for victims, where they can be a part of it," he said, "then I'm for it."
Meanwhile, inmates like 70-year-old Henry Montgomery wait behind bars for legislators to sort out new rules. He is one of 14 people in Louisiana jails who would be eligible for an immediate parole hearing if Claitor's bill were to pass in its current form.
Montgomery also is the inmate whose case made the U.S. Supreme Court's Miller ruling retroactive. In 1963, at age 17, he was convicted of killing Charles Hurt, an East Baton Rouge sheriff's deputy. Montgomery has served more than 45 years behind bars, and prison experts say he has worked hard to rehabilitate. He helped found the Angola Amateur Boxing Association and has worked for 16 years in the prison's screen-printing shop.
Although family members of Montgomery's victim have said his sentence was correct, Jenkins says she knows inmates like him who deserve a second chance. What keeps her up at night, she says, is that she almost lost the opportunity to be a mother. Jenkins adds there are others behind bars who, like her, made a terrible mistake when they were young, but have the capacity to lead productive lives outside prison now.
"There's a lot of people in there, even if they did do wrong, they should still be given [an] opportunity if they're showing that they're wiling to make changes," Jenkins says. "At least open the door for it."
Claitor's SB 16 has been referred to the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice. As of press time, a hearing had not been scheduled.