Lawmaker pulls bill to ease parole access for juvenile lifers

District attorneys, victims’ families opposed the legislation

Republicans block 'Jim Crow jury' reform
In this file photo from July 2014, a group gets a tour of a dormitory at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is also known as Angola. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)

A Louisiana legislator pulled his bill to ease access to parole for people who committed murder before the age of 18 after it became clear Wednesday the proposal was going to be voted down.

District attorneys and family members of murder victims killed by teenagers gave emotional testimony opposing the legislation. They convinced enough members of the Louisiana House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice to squash the bill.

The proposal would have eliminated requirements for juvenile lifers — those sentenced to life-without-parole sentences in prison as teens — who are seeking a parole board hearing. 

All juvenile lifers are only eligible for parole after serving 25 years of their sentence. But those indicted for any murder charge before Aug. 1, 2017 and juvenile lifers indicted for first-degree murder on or after that date often have to get permission from a judge to seek a parole hearing at all. The local district attorney can request that the judge consider blocking their parole opportunities. 

In other states, like Texas and Arkansas, juvenile lifers are allowed a parole hearing without needing additional permission from a judge. House Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, had filed a bill to remove the requirement of the extra judicial hearing in Louisiana, too. 

The district attorneys are opposed to the easing of the process. They accompanied a handful of family members of murder victims who worried the people who killed their loved ones would be more likely to get released if the bill passed. The family members’ testimony was often graphic during the hearing.

“I remember seeing [my father’s] brain matter scattered across the floor. That is something I can’t unsee,” said Ashleigh Fletcher, whose brother, as a teenager, murdered both of her parents in their home. “I live with the knowledge that my brother still has dreams of killing me.”

“A cold-blooded killer that you all choose to call a child decided to come into my house and blow my family away,” said Nathan Albritton, whose wife and son were murdered by a teenager. “I understand what you are doing for the killer, but what can you do for my 11 year-old son today?”

Proponents of the legislation included people who were juvenile lifers, but have been released from prison since a change in the law opened up parole for them four years ago. Many of them emphasized that they were homeowners, charity volunteers and taxpayers. They said they had grown in the decades since they committed crimes as teenagers.

One former juvenile lifer, Matthew Pineda, testified alongside the daughter of one of his murder victims. Deborah Hailey said she supported Pineda’s release and considered him to be a different person than the teenager who killed her father. 

“Seeing how he had handled himself in prison is nothing short of a miracle. The world needs a multiple of people like Matthew,” she told lawmakers. “He more than paid for his debt and he has atoned for his sins.”

Louisiana’s juvenile lifer parole process is convoluted because it was developed in response to a couple of U.S. Supreme Court rulings over the last decade. The court dictated that Louisiana could no longer deny parole to people serving life sentences for crimes they committed as teenagers. The justices concluded that teenagers are entitled to parole opportunities because they have more capacity to reform than adults.