Earlier this year, the Louisiana Legislature was tasked with enforcing U.S. Supreme Court rulings mandating that children be sentenced to life in prison in only "rare" and "uncommon" instances.
Now, children’s rights advocates say the state is failing to comply, as prosecutors are still asking for juvenile life without parole in more than 30 percent of all cases that have in recent years been made eligible for reconsideration.
"The District Attorneys are not using their discretion as the Supreme Court mandated nor are they heeding the explicit will of the legislature,” said Jill Pasquarella, attorney at Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights
. “The legislation means nothing if the state does not comply with the Constitution in practice.”
The issue was raised again after the 2012 Supreme Court decision Miller v. Alabama
, which banned mandatory juvenile life without parole. Four years later, the nation's highest court deemed their decision retroactive in Montgomery v. Louisiana
, opening the door for sentencing reconsideration for 256 Louisianians.
In June, the legislature voted to eliminate the life sentences for juveniles in new second-degree murder cases entirely, but to allow prosecutors to seek it in new first-degree cases. Prosecutors were also allowed to seek juvenile life in the past cases, through a process determined by special hearings before a judge. In each individual case, it would be up to the D.A.’s office to seek that sentencing.
Prosecutors were given a deadline of Monday
to given notice of their intent to seek juvenile life in cases prosecuted before 2012, when Miller v. Alabama
Data made available this week
by the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights
this week showed that in Louisiana, of the 256 cases eligible for relief, prosecutors sought juvenile life without the possibility of parole in 82 cases.
In announcing the data, Pasquarella complained that the Louisiana law is being unequally applied, meaning that an inmate’s fate can be determined by where they happened to be prosecuted, rather than the individual circumstances surrounding their convictions.
In Lafourche Parish, for instance, the district attorney is declining to seek juvenile life in any of the five eligible cases in that jurisdiction. The West Baton Rouge DA’s Office represents the other end of the spectrum, as prosecutors there have filed for life without parole in all four of its cases.
In Orleans Parish, data shows that District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has filed notices to seek juvenile life in 44 percent of cases in his district. In Jefferson Parish, District Attorney Paul Connick has filed in 43 percent of cases.
“There’s a fundamental fairness issue,” Pasquarella said. “If justice is supposed to be blind isn’t it supposed to be also consistent across jurisdictions, especially when talking about such severe penalties?”
To move forward, each case must go before a judge for a resentencing hearing to
determine if the person is incapable of rehabilitation. The Louisiana Public Defender Board has criticized the process, saying there’s no money to properly conduct the hearings. The proceedings have been estimated to cost $58,000 each.
E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association, said the cost is just part of the “legal process,” and the system now allows for each individual chosen by prosecutors for the possibility of life without parole to have “a fair shot at a sentence.”
“The judge will decide whether those cases will qualify,” Adams said, adding that members with LCCR were simply “griping” because they wanted juvenile life without parole abolished completely.
“We’ll know when all this is done if the DA’s were right,” Adams said.
If a prosecutor is not pursuing juvenile life, a person’s sentence is converted to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. To qualify for parole, those inmates must meet certain requirements, including obtaining a GED and maintaining good behavior. They then must make their case before the parole board, who has decision over their release.