A bill passed through the Louisiana Legislature this week could give a chance at parole to about 300 juvenile lifers, including Louis Gibson, whom The Lens profiled this week.
Senate Bill 16, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge, allows parole eligibility for juvenile lifers after serving 25 years of their sentence.
The legislation also bars juveniles convicted of second-degree murder from being sentenced to life without parole in the future.
In recent years, 92 percent of Louisiana’s juvenile murder defendants were charged with second-degree murder. So the new law would eliminate most future sentences statewide — unless prosecutors begin to charge differently.
Both the parole eligibility and tightened future sentencing were recommended by a task force convened by Gov. John Bel Edwards in an effort to fight crime in smarter, more cost-effective ways. He is expected to sign the bill into law next week, along with a group of bills to lighten sentences and reduce prison populations.
The legislation is a big step for Louisiana, since the state has flown in the face of a few U.S. Supreme Court rulings about juvenile lifers.
Philosophically, the state is now more in step with the rest of the country, though it’s “bucking a national trend” by not abolishing life sentences for juveniles altogether, said Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a national advocacy group.
The state’s juvenile lifers face two big hurdles before they would be eligible for a hearing. So it’s not yet clear that the bill will release more than a few dozen.
“This is a bittersweet outcome,” said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, who heads the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. Though he is pleased that second-degree murder defendants would no longer be sentenced to life without parole, he believes legislators missed an opportunity to eliminate the sentence for all Louisiana juveniles.
“Thank you, Jesus,” said Gibson’s younger sister, Cha-Chi Gibson. She said she had prayed for a 25-year threshold because her brother could be eligible for parole as early as next year.
Gibson was on her knees praying during the House debate Thursday, where key members of the House made it clear they preferred that inmates serve 30 years before they’re up for parole.
Even state Rep. Sherman Mack (R-Livingston), a member of the committee that negotiated to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, criticized it as he brought it back to the House floor without endorsing it.
The House voted, giving the bill only 46 votes.
It could have been declared dead at that point. But then Mack and his colleagues brought it back to the floor for one more try. It ultimately passed by a vote of 62 to 34.
“It’s a difficult bill,” Mack said as he stood glumly at the Senate podium. He reminded his colleagues that last year he sponsored and they passed a bill calling for blanket 30-year eligibility. He believes that bill was superior.
But the Senate filibustered it. “It was killed by politics,” Mack said.
The Senate passed this year’s bill Wednesday on a vote of 25 to 11. A lot of people made tough compromises to forge the final bill, Claitor told his colleagues on the Senate floor. “I can tell you that nobody’s going to go out and have a parade about this,” he said.
Mack was especially unhappy. The victims he had consulted were OK with 30 years, but not 25. “None can even fathom 25,” he said.
Some of his colleagues backed his stance. Others said they knew victims, including a member of the House, who accepted parole eligibility after 25 years.
The debate’s most heated moment came when state Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith (D-Baton Rouge) asked Mack about the adolescent brain science that the U.S. Supreme Court relied upon in a series of decisions about juvenile sentencing.
“Did anyone testify about the science of young children’s brains?” Smith asked, referring to committee testimony. Mack said he couldn’t remember if anyone had, but he was aware of the concept that teens with developing brains are more likely to make reckless decisions.
“Do you not believe that’s true?” Smith asked.
“I can tell you that when I was 17, I knew exactly was I was doing,” Mack replied flatly.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.”
In response, Louisiana eliminated mandatory life sentences for juveniles. But it allowed them if defendants first received a hearing to consider mitigating factors related to their young age and upbringing.
Since 2012, 75 percent of the Louisiana juveniles who have had those hearings have ended up going to prison for life. So the sentences still ran counter to Supreme Court declarations that they should be “rare” and “uncommon,” testified Professor Katherine Mattes, who directs the Criminal Law Clinic at Tulane University Law School.
“You have to do this,” said state Rep. Tanner Magee (R-Houma), as he stood in front of the House on Thursday, emphasizing that the bill aimed to fix unconstitutional conditions in Louisiana. “If you don’t vote on it now, we’ll do it again next year,” he said.
Mack responded, “I agree that we need to do something. Maybe some of us just don’t agree on what that something is.”
Without this law in place, “We will get sued,” said state Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge).
In Louisiana’s prisons, juvenile lifers like Gibson have been waiting for the state to act for more than a year, since the Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that states must offer them “meaningful opportunity” for release.
Henry Montgomery, the plaintiff in that case, has been a prisoner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola since 1970, when he was sent there for killing a sheriff’s deputy near Baton Rouge. Earlier this year, at a resentencing hearing, a prosecutor argued that Montgomery should be denied parole. Like many judges across the state, the judge overseeing the resentencing hearing had delayed a decision until legislators acted.
No one will be automatically released under the law. Juvenile lifers can earn a parole hearing only if they meet certain behavioral and educational criteria and have served the required time.
Those requirements alone may present a hurdle for many. According to a preliminary estimate by the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, 93 inmates have served enough time, but fewer than 1 in 5 of them met the other requirements.
Both advocates and legislators said one other provision might be even more daunting. The law allows prosecutors to contend that a defendant shouldn’t be granted parole eligibility because he’s irredeemable. If a prosecutor opts to make that assertion, that inmate must go through a so-called “worst of the worst hearing.”
Because of this provision, Mack’s bill last year may have made more inmates eligible for parole. It required five years more of prison time but gave blanket parole-eligibility instead of funneling the decision through prosecutors.
The legality of the “worst of the worst” hearings may ultimately be questioned, though, because under the bill, inmates who lose those hearings will never be eligible for parole. If that happens at a high rate, it could contradict Supreme Court guidance that life sentences for juveniles should be rare.
Clark-Rizzio pledged that his organization will monitor the process after the bill becomes law on Aug. 1. From that time, district attorneys have 90 days to declare which defendants they will target for “worst of the worst” hearings,
Clark-Rizzio described those as “costly re-sentencing hearings,” citing estimates that each one could cost public defenders between $50,000 and $75,000.
Kent Lavy called this aspect of the legislation “deeply flawed” because it relied too heavily on the whims of prosecutors.
Claitor, a former prosecutor, said the state’s district attorneys must be mindful of this. “You can’t declare everyone the worst of the worst,” he said.
The story is a partnership among the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a national news site that covers the issue daily; The Lens, a nonprofit, in-depth newsroom in New Orleans; and The Advocate, a daily newspaper serving Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana.