BATON ROUGE, La. — Rewriting a Senate bill that would give people convicted of murder as teenagers a chance at parole after 25 years, House lawmakers decided Wednesday to grant parole hearings only for convicted killers who aren’t deemed the “worst of the worst.”
The House criminal justice committee voted 12-2 to adopt a proposal allowing prosecutors to call hearings that could remove any possibility of parole for those sentenced as teens who a panel considers irredeemable. Representatives then passed the bill, without objection, to the House floor for debate.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 struck down automatic no-parole life sentences for crimes committed by someone under the age of 18.
Since then, lawmakers have grappled with how to handle the ruling and have, in many instances, said they are only considering the changes for people convicted for first-degree and second-degree murder because they feel forced by the nation’s highest court.
The Senate version of Sen. Dan Claitor’s bill would give all people sentenced to life as juveniles a shot at parole after 25 years, but district attorneys objected, saying the Supreme Court has left the door open for juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole in rare circumstances.
Under the newly amended measure, prisoners could become eligible for a parole hearing unless a prosecutor had flagged the case shortly after trial and convinced a panel that the offender should never be given the opportunity to be released.
If the panel does not agree with the prosecutor, the inmate would become eligible to go before a parole board after meeting certain educational, job skills training, good behavior and other requirements to reach eligibility.
“We’ve been asked by a lot of people … to make this package work,” said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association. “This settles the issue without releasing the most dangerous and violent people.”
Adams said district attorneys have compromised by agreeing not to seek life without parole sentences for second-degree murders committed by juveniles.
Multiple people whose family members had been killed at the hands of teens argued that 25 years is not long enough but said they took some solace in the notion that the most depraved killers would never have a chance to go before a parole board.
Opponents of the amendment argued that prosecutors would be overzealous and would consider too many killers to be among “the worst,” since each first-degree murder is by its very nature a heinous act.
Loretta Sonnier, a child and adolescent psychiatrist from Tulane University, said it is impossible to predict whether a teenager will be able to be reformed later in life. Because teens’ brains haven’t fully developed, psychiatrists aren’t even allowed to diagnose anti-social personality disorder until the person is 18, she said.
“Scientific evidence supports that we cannot predict if a juvenile is irreparably corrupt with a reasonable degree of accuracy,” Sonnier said.
Public defenders also argued that holding hearings regarding parole eligibility would create an undue burden for them at a time when their offices are already cash-strapped and understaffed.
About 300 inmates are serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles before 2012, when Louisiana changed its law to allow for parole consideration for people sentenced to life as juveniles after they served 35 years of their sentences and met certain criteria. The change was not applied retroactively.
The proposal under consideration would drop the number of years served — and make it retroactive, in compliance with a Supreme Court ruling last year that the high court’s 2012 ruling should be applied to current inmates as well.
Senate Bill 16: www.legis.la.gov