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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

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For a few Louisiana lifers, a new chance at parole

For a few Louisiana lifers, a new chance at parole


ANGOLA, La. (AP) — Theortric Givens, 66, has already stripped the sheets from his prison bed. He's packed up his prized carpentry tools, personal property that he used for decades to make furniture at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He's hoping the Louisiana Committee on Parole will soon hold a hearing to consider his release.

"I'm ready to go. I'm trying to be the first one out of here," Givens said "You know how long 40 years is waiting?"

Convicted in 1976 of killing a neighbor in his New Orleans apartment complex, Givens is one of a few hundred Louisiana prisoners who might become newly eligible for parole, the result of a sweeping package of criminal justice reform measures approved this spring by the Legislature and signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

The aim is to reduce Louisiana's incarceration rate, now the highest in the world, and save taxpayers $78 million over the next 10 years.

Most of the changes provide leniency to non-violent offenders. But two groups of people convicted of murder will also get their first shot at parole:

— Inmates who were convicted of murder when they were juveniles and sentenced to life in prison with no chance at parole. They may become eligible for parole Nov. 1 once they have served 25 years of their sentence and met certain other criteria. Prosecutors still have the opportunity to ask a judge to keep their life-without-parole sentences in place. About 300 juvenile lifers are currently incarcerated in Louisiana.

— About 110 to 120 inmates who were convicted of second-degree murder between 1973 and 1979 and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole -- only to see that option denied to them because of contradictory state laws. They become eligible Nov. 1 if they have served 40 years of their sentence.

The Department of Public Safety and Corrections could not say exactly how many inmates are affected. Some offenders meet both criteria.

Further, Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said some prisoners newly eligible for parole might not realize it. Prison officials are trying to spread the word.

These changes won't affect most of the lifer population, however and Louisiana will remain an outlier in doling out life-without-parole sentences. About 4,800 prisoners had no parole eligibility before these law changes were approved last month.

Louisiana is one of only a few places where adults convicted of second-degree murder will continue to be sentenced to life without parole no matter what. Only Florida, California and Pennsylvania, each with much larger populations than Louisiana, have more people serving life-without-parole sentences, according to a report from The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that tracks prison populations.

In 2016, Louisiana had more people serving life-without-parole sentences than Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas combined, according to the report. Its life-without-parole population rose 28 percent between 2003 and 2016, a period in which Louisiana's overall crime rate dropped.

Against that backdrop, leniency for violent offenders has still been a tough sell politically. Louisiana legislators changed the law for juvenile lifers only because the U.S. Supreme Court required it. Even then, it took the state five years to comply with the ruling.

And legislators approved parole eligibility for 1970s second-degree murderers because those prisoners ostensibly had the option when judges sentenced them four decades ago. Back then, second-degree murder sentences came with the possibility of parole after 20 or 40 years in prison.

But there was a confusing conflict between the sentencing law and the more stringent parole law, and eventually more than 100 prisoners saw their parole eligibility taken away.

Many inmates caught between these two laws didn't find out they had lost their parole eligible until 20 years into their sentences, in the 1990s, said Givens and others interviewed at Angola. They discovered it when the first batch started applying for Parole Board hearings and were denied.

It was disconcerting for inmates like Haki Sekou. He said he accepted a plea deal in 1978 for second-degree murder because it came with parole eligibility, instead of going to trial on a first-degree murder charge. First-degree murder did not include that option, and still doesn't.

"I wanted the possibility to get out of prison one day," said Sekou, one of three people convicted of killing a restaurant manager in New Orleans.

Inmates in the position of Sekou and Givens have challenged whether they could be denied parole options, but the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled against them. To be eligible for parole, they needed a change to the parole laws that matched their sentencing laws.

That happened last month when the Legislature and Edwards approved Senate Bill 139. Louisiana's district attorneys, who had balked at almost all proposals for leniency for violent offenders, didn't object to this change because they concluded it would not break promises to survivors and families of the 1970s murder victims.

But just being eligible for parole does not guarantee release. Only about one third of prisoners who were granted a Pardons and Parole Board hearing from 2006 to 2016 were actually paroled, according to a report from the Department of Corrections. An objection from a prosecutor or victim can doom a parole application.

And even if they are released, longtime prisoners can face difficulty adjusting to freedom. Employment for ex-offenders is not easy to find, especially if they have been out of the job market for four decades and are approaching normal retirement age.

Another challenge for newly released inmates is establishing a good support network.

In addition to finding work and a support network, the Angola lifers newly eligible for parole will face public pressure to succeed. LeBlanc, the Corrections secretary, hopes to hold them up as an example of why people who have been in prison for decades should have a shot at parole.


Information from: The Times-Picayune,