Courtroom gavel. (Getty Images)
Thirty years ago, the United Nations issued the Convention on the Rights of the Child in which it outlined various protections that should be extended to all individuals under 18, including protection from being sentenced to life imprisonment. Yet the United States, which prides itself on guaranteeing all citizens the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, remains the only nation in the world that sentences children to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Thankfully, there is momentum toward ending this practice across the country, but Louisiana has a large population of people currently serving life sentences they were handed as children, and in the past eight years has sentenced more children to juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) than any other state.
Now, Louisiana lawmakers have the opportunity to resolve this issue once and for all. HB 254, sponsored by Richard Nelson (R-Mandeville), would abolish juvenile life without parole sentences as our neighbors in Texas, Arkansas and 23 other states have already done.
The legislation gives every child sentenced to life in prison an opportunity to go before a parole board after 25 years. This does not guarantee release. It simply allows the parole board to decide if someone is fully rehabilitated and can safely re-join the community.
The parole board is trained to make these decisions and is very skilled at its job. Since the Louisiana Legislature extended parole eligibility to a subset of “juvenile lifers” in 2017, the board has granted parole to 68 people. Not a single one has been re-arrested.
Many immediately begin to think about public safety. The reality is that there is no public safety benefit to keeping kids behind bars until they die. Research uniformly shows that kids age out of crime, especially by the time they reach their late 30s. Their brains develop, and they start to make better choices. A Montclair State University study considered the public safety impact of releasing people sentenced to life without parole after they served a good portion of their sentence, and it found a rate of recidivism of only 1%. Many of those released were positively contributing to their communities as leaders, mentors, parents and advocates.
It’s for these very reasons that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled juvenile life without parole should only be imposed in the rarest of cases. Since the vast majority of kids can change, the vast majority should have the possibility of a second chance. Exceptions should not define the rule.
Individuals under the age of 18 are not fully developed physically, intellectually or emotionally. They are more prone to act based upon peer pressure and are less likely to take consequences into account when making decisions, according to a recent study from the National Institute of Health. For these reasons, we do not allow people younger than 18 to serve on juries, sign a contract or get married without their parents’ permission. The majority of the courts in the United States have also taken these fundamental differences into account with laws around youth sentencing, and it is time for Louisiana to follow suit. Yes, we must all be held accountable for our actions, but to lock away children and throw away the key — with no chance at redemption — is abusive and immoral.
HB 254 is supported by case law, science, data, research and people on both sides of the political spectrum. It is good public policy. It gives a second chance to Louisiana’s kids, some of whom were never given a first chance. As parents and residents of the great state of Louisiana, we urge lawmakers to give them mercy and a chance for redemption. We urge them to vote yes on HB 254.
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