Justice for Louisiana Juvenile Lifers
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Since 2005, there have been four rulings handed down by the United States Supreme Court with one fundamental concept: children are constitutionally and mentally different from adults and should be treated as such. Adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences. In 2005, Roper v. Simmons banned sentencing juvenile offenders to the death penalty. In 2010, Graham v. Florida banned the use of life without parole for juveniles convicted on non-homicide crimes. In 2012, Miller v Alabama took Graham one step further. Miller held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, for non-homicide and homicide offense alike, violated the Eight Amendment and was a disproportionate sentence. Montgomery v Louisiana, ruled in 2016, affected mandatory sentencing laws in 28 states and applied the ruling in Miller retroactively to all those sentenced prior to 2012. Simply, the severest punishment should be reserved for the “rarest juvenile offender whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” Montgomery affected approximately 2,100 juveniles whose life sentences were issued mandatorily. In Louisiana alone, the Montgomery ruling affected approximately 300 juveniles.
The process of brain development that causes impulsiveness, risky and reward seeking behavior is not complete until approximately 25 years of age. Identity formation, such as personal beliefs, values and goals, is incomplete until the early 20's. Therefore, when sentencing juveniles, courts should be sure a sufficient period of incarceration allows for full maturity and demonstrable rehabilitation but safeguard the juvenile offenders’ right to a meaningful opportunity for release. It is important to remember that Miller and Montgomery said those juvenile offenders serving life without parole must be given a "meaningful opportunity for release".
What exactly does that entail? A meaningful opportunity for release must permit some opportunity to achieve success in life. Traditionally, in the United States, this means the ability to have a family, career, and relationships. Sentence reviews after 20-25 years would ensure juveniles are not subjected to unconstitutionally disproportionate sentences. Delaying review beyond 20-25 years does not meaningfully contribute to any legitimate purpose of punishment.
The only adequate manner to address Life Without Parole and Virtual Life Without Parole for juvenile offenders is through statutory provisions that remove parole restrictions and allow for the parole board to evaluate based on specific criteria specifically designed for juvenile offenders. As our current law stands, the parole consideration statute of 35 years served would not happen for many juveniles until they are in their early 50's. The likelihood of establishing a meaningful career and having a family are greatly diminished. Meaningful opportunity should happen in a reasonable time-frame that does not foreclose these opportunities.
Since the United States Supreme Court ruling in Miller v Alabama, Louisiana legislature set forth in 2013 a revision to statute 15:574.4(E) related to juvenile offenders serving a sentence of life imprisonment for convictions of first degree murder or second degree murder. This statute (Act 239-2013 Regular Legislative Session) allowed for an offender to be granted parole eligibility after serving 35 years of their sentence. The Act was prospective only, meaning it only applied to anyone sentenced after August 1, 2013 when the act was made into Louisiana law. Arguably, this 35 year minimum does not comply with the concept of meaningful opportunity and should be looked at again to find a more suitable compromise that falls in line with Miller v Alabama and Montgomery v Louisiana rulings from the United States Supreme Court.
Perhaps those most greatly affected here in Louisiana are those convicted prior to the Miller ruling in 2012. There are approximately 300 men and women still incarcerated with what is said to be “illegal” sentences. These offenders have no set statute regarding their parole eligibility as Act 239 is not retroactive. Many of these offenders have done 20 or more years already and have demonstrated marked maturity, remorse and rehabilitation. Re-sentencing hearings will be costly to the state of Louisiana and the current 35 years served before parole eligibility will violate Due Process and Ex Post Facto clauses.
The Louisiana Constitution makes it so that anyone serving an unconstitutional sentence, otherwise known as an “illegal sentence”, should be given the next responsive verdict. This Constitutional mandate was applied in State v Craig, State v Lee, and recently State v Smith. In many of the convictions of pre-Miller cases, these sentences would defer to manslaughter. Manslaughter carries a sentence of around 21 years served for most of the offenders affected by the Montgomery ruling. Therefore, applying a 35 year sentence is harsher than what would have been applied at the time of the offense, thus violating Ex Post Facto and Due Process. This violation of Ex Post Facto and Due Process could in essence cost Louisiana and its tax payers more money in the long run through potential litigation and lawsuits.
As of today, an adult can apply for clemency after serving 15 years. If that pardon is granted and the sentence is commuted to a term of years, they are automatically eligible for the 20/45 ruling. If a juvenile has to wait until they are 45 years of age, they would have served approximately 30 years if they were convicted at the age of 16. That is 10 years more than an adult, which goes against the United States Supreme Court rulings in Miller v Alabama and Montgomery v Louisiana which asserts that juveniles are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes and their sentences should not be harsher than an adults.
We are asking that parole eligibility be granted to any juvenile serving a life without parole sentence either have their sentence commuted to a fixed terms of years that provided a meaningful opportunity for release or be granted parole eligibility after serving 20 years in custody. If legislature cannot come to a set number of years that would reflect a meaningful opportunity for release for juvenile lifers then the parole board should be allowed to review each case and decide who is fit for re-entry into society, based on a specific set of criteria the parole board currently uses for juvenile offender's parole review.
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