James Gill: Time to let Montgomery go free _lowres

FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2015 file photo, people line up outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, as the justices began to discuss sentences for young prison 'lifers.' A decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana. The Supreme Court ruled Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, that people serving life terms for murders they committed as teenagers must have a chance to seek their freedom. The court ruled in the case of Henry Montgomery, who has been in prison more than 50 years, since he killed a sheriff's deputy as a 17-year-old in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1963. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Henry Montgomery is entitled to be considered for parole, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January, but that won’t happen any time soon.

Neither will some 300 other Louisiana lifers covered by that decision, because the clock ran out on legislation that would have cleared the way to implement it. A bill was passed by the House, but our senators weren’t inclined to rush just because Louisiana is violating the U.S. Constitution.

At issue is the fate of inmates sentenced to life without any possibility of parole for murders committed when they were under the age of 18. That, the Supreme Court ruled in 2012, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, since it made no allowance for juveniles’ “immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences ”

Several states decided to apply the decision retroactively, but the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to do so in rejecting a petition from Montgomery, who is in Angola for murdering a Baton Rouge deputy sheriff in 1963. Montgomery was 17 at the time.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such ancient lifers as Montgomery were indeed entitled to parole hearings, Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, filed a bill setting out the requirements for release. Any move to go easy on convicted murderers is likely to cause an outbreak of the jitters in some quarters, but Mack’s bill was not calculated to flood the streets with desperados.

To be eligible for a parole hearing, an inmate would need to have done at least 35 years in prison and to have committed no “disciplinary offenses” in the previous 12 months. Those without a high school diploma who were deemed too dumb for a GED would be required to undergo some education or training. Inmates would have to be classified as “low risk” by the Corrections Department, and complete a re-entry program.

When all those requirements had been met, a three-member panel of the Parole Board would convene to consider “a written evaluation of the offender by a person who has expertise in adolescent brain development and behavior and any other relevant evidence.” The panel would then “render specific findings of fact in support of its decision.”

It is highly unlikely that the Parole Board would err on the side of bleeding hearts. As Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, observed, “If you look at the actions of the Parole Board, we’re not famous for letting people of our jail.”

Martiny made that remark after he and his colleagues failed to vote on Mack’s bill as the regular legislative session wound down. Senators would have voted for it, Martiny said, but they felt “disrespected” because their version of the capital outlay bill was bottled up in the House. Such are the delicate sensibilities of our legislators that they will kill one bill if they don’t get their way on another, totally unrelated, one.

One of these days, legislators will have to bow to the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court and clear the way for parole hearings. Meanwhile, an opportunity to save taxpayers bucks will be missed, since locking people up for life is an expensive proposition, especially if you catch them young. Any inmate who does eventually win release, moreover, will hardly represent a threat to the public and will have atoned plenty for crimes committed at an age, as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy put it, of “diminished culpability.”

Certainly, no purpose, save implacable vengeance, is served by keeping Montgomery in the penitentiary.

A group that included former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Pascal Calogero and former Angola warden John Whitley filed an amicus brief, on his behalf, stating that they “have observed juvenile offenders, convicted even of the most serious crimes, processed through one of the most historically difficult systems of justice, and housed under the most violent, hostile, and hopeless conditions, who can and do find the spark of rehabilitation, and who can and do grow and develop to the point where they could be welcomed back into society.”

Montgomery, according to fellow former inmates, has never been a troublemaker in the pen. His trial attorney said he had an IQ in the low 70s. It seems likely that the Parole Board, when it is given a chance, will conclude he is just a harmless old man, if he isn’t dead by then.

Email James Gill at jgill@theadvocate.com.