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Editorial: Giving juveniles who make life-altering mistakes a second chance

Last Modified: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 5:13 PM

With Gov. Bobby Jindal’s signature, juveniles now sentenced to life in prison without parole will have a chance at parole.

Act 239, formerly House Bill 152 by state Rep. Chris Hazel, R-Pineville, will go into effect August 1.

The act will supersede current law which provides that any juvenile convicted of first or second-degree murder faces a life in prison sentence without benefit of parole, probation or suspended sentence.

The new law, however, will require that any juvenile under the age of 18 sentenced to life in prison serve 35 years before being eligible for parole.

The felon would also:

• Have not committed any disciplinary offenses in the 12 consecutive months prior to the parole eligibility date.

• Completed a minimum of 100 hours of prerelease programming.

• Completed substance abuse treatment as applicable.

• Obtained a GED or, in certain circumstances, has completed a literacy program, an adult basic education program, or a job skills training program.

• Been designated a low-risk by the Department of Public Safety.

The felon’s history must also be reviewed by a three-person panel which will consider a written evaluation of the offender by a person who has expertise in adolescent brain development and behavior.

The new law also states that sentences imposed without parole eligibility should be reserved for the worst offenders and the worst cases.

Act 239 follows a 2012 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that held that mandatory life sentences for juveniles prevent juries and judges from considering a juvenile’s lessened culpability and increased chances for change.

It revives the age-old argument of whether long prison sentences are for punishment or for rehabilitation, a debate that was at the center of the Wilbert Rideau saga. Rideau, convicted three times in the robbery of a Lake Charles bank and murder of one of three hostages he took when he was 19, served 44 years in prison, winning national acclaim for his writings while at Angola Prison. A fourth trial ordered because blacks were excluded from the grand jury that indicted him in 1961, resulted in a conviction of manslaughter and a sentence of 21 years that led to Rideau’s immediate release.

The new law is not without controversy and will draw some naysayers, but it seems to be a reasonable approach for some juveniles who make a life-altering mistake.

• • •

This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.

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