June 2, 2017 11:13 AM

House amendments in the SB16 would allow prosecutors to continue to seek life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders, leaving the state exposed to further court fights

The Senate on Thursday unanimously rejected House changes in a bill that would make Louisiana's sentencing practices for juveniles convicted of violent crimes conform to three U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the subject.

Supporters of SB16 said the bill had been amended in the House to preserve the status quo in the state's practices, which defeats the point of the reforms and would expose the state to further litigation. SB16 now goes to a House/Senate conference committee in an attempt to reach a compromise on the bill.

SB16 was authored by Baton Rouge Sen. Dan Claitor, a member of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force. The bill was written in response to three SCOTUS decisions relating to the sentencing of juvenile defenders.

In its 2010 decision in Graham v Florida, the Court ruled that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes that did not involve homicides. In the Court's 2012 ruling in Miller v Alabama it ruled that sentences of life without the possibility of parole could not be imposed on juvenile offenders even in murder cases. In Montgomery v Louisiana, the Court ruled in 2016 that its Miller decision applied retroactively to those who had been sentenced as juveniles to life without the possibility of parole.

Justice Anthony Kennedy was the lead author in those opinions. He noted that brain science has revealed that the brains of adolescents are different than adults and that sentences imposed on juvenile offenders should recognize their ability to change. In Montgomery, the Court ruled that states must offer the possibility of parole to those juveniles convicted of murder and other violent crimes.

Claitor's bill passed the Senate with provisions that juvenile offenders could become eligible for parole hearings after serving 25 years of their sentences.

The bill was amended in the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee by chair Rep. Sherman Mack to allow prosecutors to continue to seek life without the possibility of parole sentences for juveniles convicted of first or second degree murder. Mack also amended the bill to extend the period before a former juvenile could become eligible for a parole hearing from 25 to 30 years. Current Louisiana law sets the eligibility time at 35 years.

Mark Plaisance, Lafourche Parish public defender who argued the Montgomery case before the Supreme Court, told The Independent that Mack's amendments left the status quo in place. He also predicted that the state would be subject to more litigation if it continued to allow prosecutors to seek life without the possibility of parole sentences for juveniles for any crimes.

His views were shared by Jill Pasquarella, an attorney with the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights.

"We know that these types of prosecution of children in Louisiana have continued post-Miller," Pasquarella told The Independent. "We know that 75 percent of children who go before judges on murder charges are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole."

Confronted with that reality, the Senate rejected the House amendments to SB16.

Other bills in the Justice Reinvestment Task Force package of bills advanced as the end of the session approaches.

The three major bills at the heart of the criminal justice reform effort — SB220, SB221 and SB139 — got their second reading by title on the House floor today. The House will not meet on Saturday, but will meet on Sunday. The bills would get their third required reading then which would allow them to be set for debate and final passage as early as Monday, June 5.

All three bills were amended during consideration in the Administration of Criminal Justice hearings on them and could be amended again on the floor. The bills will need to be returned to the Senate for concurrence if they win House approval. Sending any of these bills to a conference committee could amount to a death sentence for them in this session due to the tight timeline.

SB139 has been the most controversial of the three bills because it provides for the possibility of parole for approximately 160 inmates who were sentenced to life at a time when the state offered the possibility of parole for second degree murder convictions. The state subsequently changed the law and took away that possibility. SB139 restores that possibility to those inmates.

Other bills in the package are also racing the clock to win approval.

The Senate Judiciary B Committee will hear four House bills related to criminal reform when it meets on Saturday — HB116, HB249, HB489 and HB519. The bills will need clean passage through the Senate in order to avoid the possibility of being stranded in a conference committee by the time the session adjourns.

HB489 by Rep. Walt Leger III is the reinvestment part of the Justice Reinvestment package. It was amended after advocates reached an agreement with the Louisiana District Attorneys' Association to narrow the focus of the general package to non-violent offenders. While the overall savings from the reforms will be reduced by the compromise, Leger's bill invests 70 percent of the savings from the reforms in rehabilitation, reentry and parole programs. The original bill invested 50 percent of the savings.

HB519 by Rep. Julie Emerson would eliminate the provisional status of licenses issued to former offenders not convicted of sex crimes, murder or some other crimes of violence.

Rep. Vincent Pierre's HB688, which would bar most Louisiana colleges and universities from questioning applicants about their criminal past on initial applications, was approved by the Senate on Friday morning. It was amended while in the Senate and now heads back to the House for concurrence.

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