EAST BATON ROUGE PARISH, LA (WAFB) - Juveniles sentenced to life behind bars in Louisiana now have an escape hatch.
Nearly 300 inmates, behind bars since they were teens, could be gr anted parole under a new state law that goes into effect Tuesday, August 1. Except in cases to be determined "the worst of the worst," inmates could be gr anted parole after 25 years behind bars and once they have completed a series of reform programs.
The new state law, passed during 2017 legislative session, is in response to a United States Supreme Court ruling based on a murder case out of East Baton Rouge Parish. Nearly 50 years ago, then 17-year-old Henry Montgomery was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder of EBR Parish Sheriff's Office Deputy Charles Hurt, 44.
The Supreme Court used Montgomery's case when they ruled last year life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional, including in previous cases that have already been adjudicated.
Since then, the fate of hundreds of juvenile offenders currently behind bars has been in limbo, until now.
Under the new state law, there are two ways forward. District Attorneys can either go back to court in hopes of getting a true "life sentence" without the benefit of parole. The other option is allowing those offenders a chance at parole once they reach 25 years in prison and complete certain rehabilitation programs.
DAs must decide which course of action to take on these old cases before November 1.
"We're going to have a lot of tough decisions over the next several weeks, months," said East Baton Rouge DA Hillar Moore. His office must figure out what to do with 28 old cases.
"Trying to find victims' families after 25 years when back then they may have been landline phones, no internet. Families have moved around, can be very difficult," said Moore.
In about one third of those 28 old cases, the inmate has already served 25 years behind bars, meaning they have already met one of the key benchmarks in getting parole.
If Moore decides to go to trial on any of those cases, it will likely carry a big price tag. That's a problem if the inmate needs public defense.
"The sentencing hearings we're talking about are the equivalent are the hearings we see in death penalty cases," said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights. "The public defender board was not allocated additional funds this year to represent all these individuals who are entitled to representation at these hearings."
The next few months will be key, as many wait to see how DAs choose to move forward.
The new state law also changes things going forward. Only juveniles charged in first degree murder cases will be able to get life without parole, if the DA pursues that sentence.