La. Senate committee advances bill giving juveniles convicted of murder a chance at parole

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Louisiana lawmakers are once again taking up a measure that would provide a chance at parole for certain offenders convicted of first or second degree murder.

Across the state, roughly 300 people have been sitting behind bars since they were teenagers. Convicted of murder for an act they committed before age 18, they are serving life sentences with no chance at parole.

SB 16, sponsored by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, would give these offenders the opportunity for a parole hearing after 30 years in prison. They must meet a series of other requirements as well, including attaining a certain basic level of education.

The bill would move to bring Louisiana closer in line with a ruling from the United States Supreme Court, declaring life without parole is cruel and unusual in certain cases and thus, unconstitutional.

"This is a mandate from the United States Supreme Court that says fix it, and that's what we have to deal with," Claitor told the committee.

Under Claitor's bill, 89 of the 300 inmates would already meet the 30-year requirement, according to Corrections Sec. Jimmy LeBlanc.

The bill would also apply to future murder cases. While district attorneys could still pursue life sentences without parole for those 17 and younger, it would only apply to the most heinous first degree murder cases. Second degree murder cases would automatically have a shot at parole once all requirements are reached.

The bill is backed by Louisiana's Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, who argued children both make mistakes and also have great capacity to change.

"At some point you make bad decisions, you make rash decisions, because that is a part of growing up," she said.

The bill advanced through a Senate committee Tuesday without objection. However, many lawmakers expressed some concerns and are likely to amend the bill on the Senate floor.

Some lawmakers, for example, worried that the rule change could force the families of victims to relive the death of their loved one, even after being promised the convict would be locked away forever.

"We've talked for two hours and we just don't mention the victims. That bothers me," said Sen. Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan.

However, other lawmakers believe the chance for parole should come sooner – after 15 or 20 years behind bars. Those sentiments were echoed by the Chief Justice, as well as some community members who lost their own relatives to murder.

"My son will never come back. My daughter-in-law will never come back, but at some point, the only way for me to heal is to allow someone else to heal," said Norris Henderson, with Voters Organized to Educate.

Lawmakers toyed with similar bills last year. A compromise bill made it to the Senate floor on the last day of the session, but died there amid a fight over the state's budget.

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