Juvenile lifers step closer to parole eligibility

<p class="p1">BATON ROUGE — Senators on Wednesday approved legislation that would grant a parole hearing for those sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles after serving 25 years of their sentence. But it also retains a district attorney’s right to deem some offenders the “worst of the worst,” keeping them behind bars.</p><p class="p1">Senators voted 25-11 to approve a conference committee report on Senate Bill 16, by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge. It heads to the House for approval.</p><p class="p1">The measure went through several changes during the session. Claitor said the current version is a compromise supported by the Louisiana District Attorneys Association and Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association.</p><p class="p1">Claitor said district attorneys still have the right to declare particular juveniles sentenced to life the “worst of the worst.” He said roughly 300 people statewide who committed crimes as juveniles were sentenced to life.</p><p class="p1">For future cases, district attorneys would have to make a declaration that a juvenile couldn’t be eligible for a parole hearing within 180 days of an indictment. Also, juveniles convicted of second-degree murder couldn’t be sentenced to life in future cases.</p><p class="p1">Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, a longtime advocate of improving the state’s criminal justice system, said the amended legislation isn’t what he wanted, but he asked his colleagues to approve it because district attorneys backed the bill.</p><p class="p1">Martiny said he has “worked like a dog” to improve criminal justice as a state lawmaker. He called comments that suggested he was making it easier to let people out of jail “insulting.”</p><p class="p1">After the vote, Aaron Clark-Rizzo, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said in a statement that the legislation would continue to keep the state from complying with a Supreme Court mandate that “almost no child be sentenced to die in prison.”</p><p class="p1">“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,” she said.</p><p class="p1">Sens. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, and Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, approved the legislation. Sen. John Smith, R-Leesville, opposed it.</p>