"We've been told by the United States Supreme Court, 'You guys have to fix this,'" Baton Rouge Sen. Dan Claitor said, when he brought this year's bill to restrict sentencing juveniles to life without parole.
But Act 277, Louisiana's legislative response to the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Montgomery v Louisiana, may need a do-over.
The measure started out giving parole eligibility after 30 years to every juvenile sentenced to life. Once it had gone through committee amendments, floor amendments, and ultimately to conference, it ended up giving district attorneys the option of seeking a fresh, life-without-parole sentence for the "worst of the worst."
"It'll be up to the district attorneys from this point out to follow the law and not declare every single person 'the worst of the worst,'" Claitor said, when urging the Senate’s final approval of the bill. "And if that's what they end up doing, then it'll be on them."
Jill Pasquarella, attorney with the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, says DAs have now filed notices of request for re-sentencing in 81 out of 184 eligible cases.
"When the U.S. Supreme Court has said that the sentence is appropriate only for the 'rare and uncommon child,' the child who is 'permanently incorrigible' — it's hard to believe that 44 percent is 'rare and uncommon.'"
She says there are noticeable disparities, depending on the jurisdiction.
"For example, in West Baton Rouge they're seeking new life-without-parole sentences against all of the children that were eligible in their district — four of four. In Lafourche Parish, they didn't seek life-without parole for any of the children."
She says Caddo Parish had the largest number of potential cases, but only sought a re-sentencing hearing in one. In East Baton Rouge Parish, re-sentencing is ought in 37 percent of eligible cases; 39 percent in Orleans; and in 43 percent of cases in Jefferson Parish.
Pasquarella says these are no longer young men or women, and many have proven to be model prisoners. Yet district attorneys are still determined to deny them the opportunity for parole.
"They're seeking a life-without-parole sentence against people who are Class A trustees at Angola; against folks who have served 35 years in prison, 40 years in prison," says Pasquarella. "It's hard to believe that these folks have not reformed, have not changed."
Pascarella anticipates more legal challenges as a result of this law.
"Prosecutors are seeking the sentence in too many cases," Pascarella states. "We have not come into compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. We're going to have to legislate this issue again."