Legislative Report

Juvenile life sentence compromise passes House on second try SB16 leaves Louisiana in violation of Supreme Court rulings on juvenile life but not as blatantly

by Mike Stagg

SB16 provides a pathway to possible parole for all juveniles who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and will allow state prosecutors to continue to pursue life sentences for juveniles charge with first degree murder.

Photo by Andreas Bohnenstenge/Wikimedia

The final piece of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force's legislative package cleared the House on Thursday afternoon but only on its second try.

The conference committee report SB16 initially failed when the measure did not get the needed 53 votes needed for passage. The vote was 46-44.

Pete Adams of the Louisiana District Attorneys' Association and the bill's author Sen. Dan Claitor feverishly worked the House in the wake of the vote to get the matter reconsidered when the House returned from a recess.

The bill came back up at about 2:30 for reconsideration after the House suspended the rules to allow another debate and vote.

Despite a heated debate on the bill, it won approval by a 67-34 margin.

House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice chair Rep. Sherman Mack was a member of the conference committee and he refused to sign the compromise approved by the other five members. His opposition contributed to the failure of the measure to initially win approval.

Rep. Mack took to the floor to say that he opposed the bill on the basis of a pledge he had made to crime victims in his district.

"I told them that I would push for a 30-year limit before any of these people could seek parole," Mack explained. "The members of the conference committee went with 25. I just couldn't sign off on that."

That swayed the House, where even supporters like Magee and Rep. John Stefanski admitted that it was not a popular bill, but one made necessary by U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have declared life sentences for juveniles without the possibility of parole unconstitutional.

Mack made the same arguments when the bill was called up to be reconsidered, but a letter from the LDAA in support of the bill appeared to sway votes in the opposite direction that Mack's appeal had on the bill's first vote.

Rep. Tanner Magee told his colleagues that this was the legislature's second attempt to put state law in line with the Supreme Court's 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision declaring life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional. In 2016, the SCOTUS ruled in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller decision applied to those who had already been sentenced to life while they were still juveniles.

As amended by the conference committee, SB16 by Sen. Dan Claitor allows Louisiana prosecutors to continue to seek to impose life sentences for juveniles convicted of first degree murder but provides a pathway toward potential parole. It also makes first degree murder convictions the only instances in which Louisiana prosecutors could have sought life sentences for juvenile offenders. Louisiana law currently allows prosecutors to seek life sentences for juveniles convicted of second degree murder.

The final version of SB16 also allows for all juveniles sentenced to life without the benefit of parole to become eligible for a parole hearing once they've served 25 years. There are approximately 300 such inmates serving time in Department of Corrections facilities.

The state will still likely face litigation over the availability of life sentences for juveniles, according to one of the proponents of the original bill who expressed disappointment in the compromise that won final passage.

Aaron Clark-Rizzio of the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, in a statement issued on Wednesday after the Senate approved the conference committee report on SB16, said the law will continue to allow sentences that the Supreme Court has condemned.

"For the past five years, Louisiana has failed to comply with the Supreme Court's mandate that almost no child be sentenced to die in prison," Clark-Rizzio said. "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."

Ironically, the fact that the final version of SB16 does allow life sentences to be available to prosecutors became one of the chief selling points in support of the bill in the final debate on the bill on Thursday afternoon.

Rep. Joe Marino of Gretna, who emerged as a key player in handling Justice Reinvestment Task Force bills in the House, read from a letter distributed by the LDAA which trumpeted prosecutors' ability to continue to seek those sentences in first degree murder cases.

In a phone interview with The Independent on Thursday morning prior to the House vote, Clark-Rizzio said Louisiana prosecutors have mostly ignored the Supreme Court's Miller decision and using the option to pursue life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders convicted for either first or second degree murder.

"What we've seen in the five years since the Supreme Court's 2012 Miller decision," Clark-Rizzio said, "is that prosecutors here seek life sentences for juveniles charged with murder 100 percent of the time and get convictions in 75 percent of those cases. This undercuts the Supreme Court's mandate that these sentences be used rarely."

Clark-Rizzio had predicted more litigation against the state had the conference committee version of SB16 passed.

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys' Association, and the bill's author Sen. Claitor were working the floor of the House during a recess that came shortly after the vote.

"We are working to get the conference committee report reconsidered," Adams told The Independent. "It would be a terrible thing for this bill not to pass."

Ultimately the brief scramble that Adams and Sen. Claitor engaged in just before 2 p.m. succeeded. The bill now heads to Governor Edwards' desk for signature. It is unlikely that the state's issue with the use of life sentences when dealing with juveniles has been resolved.