Louisiana legislators said they made a mistake earlier this year when they passed a new law making it easier for some people given lifetime prison sentences for crimes they committed as minors to be released. They are looking to undo the part of the new statute that just took effect in August and helps so-called “juvenile lifers.”
State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, is the sponsor of the original law as well as a new bill to undo a portion of it. He said the initial statute inadvertently applies to juvenile lifers when it wasn’t intended to have that effect. While he supports easing access to parole for people given life sentences as teenagers, he didn’t want his colleagues to feel misled about what they had voted to approve four months ago.
“I’m here to rectify that mistake in the bill and I own it because it was my bill,” James said at a hearing of the Louisiana House Criminal Justice Committee Thursday. “My word is more important than my politics.”
There may have also been some confusion around the original bill because James was absent from the second portion of the session when it was passed. He got sick with COVID-19 and did not return to the Legislature until it was in another session later in June. Rep. Joe Marino, an independent from Gretna, and Sen. Rick Ward, R-Baton Rouge, handled the legislation for James while he was out.
“This amendment brings the bill back to what I thought we passed in the last session,” Marino said of the current legislation.
Passed in June, James’ original bill was aimed at people convicted of crimes before the age of 18 who are serving prison sentences that span decades, but which are not technically life sentences. It allows those prisoners to have access to parole after 25 years if they were considered low-risk for re-offending and have met other educational and discipline requirements.
The law is supposed to bring parole parity to all people convicted of crimes committed while they were underage. Prior to the law being passed, people convicted of the most serious crimes as teenagers – murder and rape — were given a shot at parole before people sent to prison for less serious crimes as teenagers, like armed robbery.
There was general agreement among legislators that the inconsistency was unfair. Prosecutors — who usually don’t favor easing parole access — agreed to the legislation because of the disparity.
But the language of the new law ended up removing an extra step in the parole process that Louisiana prosecutors have insisted apply to the juvenile lifers — who have been convicted of murder, rape or aggravated kidnapping.
Currently, district attorneys are allowed to ask for an extra hearing with a judge for some juvenile lifers before they are allowed to go to the parole board. The judge can determine whether the juvenile lifers should be granted a parole hearing at all. The law passed in June took this hearing out of the process — a change the district attorneys had not agreed to make.
James’ new bill would insert that hearing back into the process, much to the disappointment of criminal justice advocates who lobbied for his first bill. Those advocates have always insisted that this extra hearing is not in the spirit of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings that forced Louisiana to offer juvenile lifers a shot at parole in the first place.
The Legislature only reluctantly started granting people convicted of murder as minors a chance at parole a few years ago after the Supreme Court handed down two decisions – in 2012 and again in 2016 — telling states that they had to change the way they treated juvenile lifers.
In 2012, the court decided that juvenile lifers could only be sentenced to prison without parole in rare cases because science shows that adolescents’ brains aren’t fully formed. Teenagers’ abilities to change and grow as they age is significant, which the justices said influenced their ruling.
Louisiana initially applied this new standard to teenagers convicted of crimes moving forward, but did not apply it to people who were already in prison. In 2016, the court clarified — through a Louisiana-specific case — that states needed to offer juvenile lifers a chance at parole retroactively. So Louisiana had to change its law again.
This meant that several juvenile lifers who were middle-aged or even elderly suddenly had a shot at release. Four years ago, it was estimated that about 260 of these prisoners were currently in the Louisiana prison system.
Jane Hogan, an attorney in private practice who represents juvenile lifers, testified that district attorneys are supposed to only ask for judicial hearings in the “worst of the worst” cases under state law. But some district attorneys end up pursuing the extra hearing in all of their juvenile lifer parole cases.
More than a third of juvenile lifers across the state have had to go before a judge to ask permission for a parole hearing because of district attorney requests. Around 70 are still “caught up in litigation” four years later, she said.
Even “juvenile lifers” who make it to the parole board are not guaranteed release. Louisiana inmate Henry Montgomery has been denied parole twice in the last three years though his case was the one that led the U.S. Supreme Court to mandate it for all juvenile lifers in 2016.
Montgomery was convicted in 1963 of killing an East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy when Montgomery was 17 years old. In 57 years, he’s been before the parole board twice — and has twice been denied.