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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

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House backs parole eligibility to teenage lifers on 2nd vote

House backs parole eligibility to teenage lifers on 2nd vote

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Some Louisiana inmates who committed murder as teenagers will get a chance for parole after 25 years, after the House passed the last piece of Gov. John Bel Edwards' criminal justice overhaul Thursday.

The proposal's supporters said Louisiana would be hit with costly federal lawsuits if lawmakers didn't comply with a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down automatic no-parole life sentences for juveniles.

Since then, lawmakers have grappled with how to handle the ruling. In many instances, they said they only considered making the changes for people convicted for first-degree and second-degree murder because they felt forced by the nation's highest court.

"If we don't pass this bill, we're going to get sued," said Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, as he urged his colleagues to adopt a compromise bill that originated with Sen. Dan Claitor. "And then we're going to have to come back here and argue again."

Shortly after rejecting the compromise, the House revisited the measure and gave it final passage, 67-35, on the legislative session's final day.

Rep. Sherman Mack, criminal justice committee chairman, argued that parole eligibility should only be granted after 30 years. He said he spoke with victims' families who aren't happy with the proposal, but would be more comfortable with a 30-year threshold.

"Sherman Mack cannot tell someone who has had a loved one murdered that we're going to pass legislation to let (the offender) out because we just can't afford to house them," the Albany Republican said.

The bills' proponents countered that victims' families would hold key roles whenever an offender is up for parole.

District attorneys will be able to seek a life-without-parole sentence if a judge deems an offender to be among the "worst of the worst."

Juvenile justice advocates are upset about that provision and some lawmakers have also expressed their concerns, fearing that prosecutors will try to argue that every first-degree murderer is among "the worst of the worst."

The U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled that juveniles should only receive a life-without-parole sentence in "exceptional circumstances."

"This legislation enables the state to stay on its misguided course, which in all likelihood will lead to further litigation and a directive to once again revisit our legislation," Aaron Clark-Rizzio, the executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, said in a statement this week.

District attorneys would have 90 days to tell a judge if they want to withhold parole eligibility from any of the approximately 300 inmates serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers before 2012. Louisiana changed its law that year to allow 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.

In the future, district attorneys would have 180 days following an indictment to flag an alleged offender as among the "worst of the worst," according to the measure.

The passage of Claitor's proposal means that all 10 parts of Edwards' criminal justice package now await the governor's signature. Edwards expects the bills to spur a 10 percent drop in Louisiana's prison population over the next decade, resulting in millions of dollars in savings annually.


Senate Bill 16: