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Justice advocates, D.A.s spar over parole for juvenile lifers

13th November 2017   ·   0 Comments

The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights says the state of Louisiana is violating federal law by denying most murderers convicted as juveniles an opportunity to make parole, reported last week.

The advocacy group says that Louisiana district attorneys are trying to block too many inmates convicted of murder as juveniles from getting a shot at parole for Louisiana to be in compliance with the recent Supreme Court decision that supports the right of juvenile killers to be considered for parole.

Both justice advocates and prosecutors expect the matter to be resolved in the court system.

The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights maintains that the state’s district attorneys are trying to block about one-third of the state’s juvenile killers who qualify for parole after being in prison for 25 years and fulfilling certain requirements from getting a shot at being released. The group said prosecutors have been successful in doing so in a number of cases.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles should be sentenced to life without parole only in rare and extreme cases in which the offender is considered the “worst of the worst” and cannot be rehabilitated.

Jill Pasquarella, an attorney for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, told that it is unreasonable to think that one-third of all juveniles sentenced to life — 82 of 258 current Louisiana prison inmates — would meet the high court’s “worst of the worst” designation.

She added that prosecutors’ efforts to block juvenile lifers from getting a shot at parole means Louisiana will be headed back to court and that the cash-strapped state will have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for a second defense of Louisiana law and legal counsel for some juvenile lifers.

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, told that the Supreme Court needs to better clarify its definition of the “worst of the worst” juvenile offenders.

“Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court will say what’s acceptable and what’s not,” Adams said. “If the U.S. Supreme Court says that no one can get life without parole or who can’t get it, we will abide by that.”

The challenge of the state’s district attorneys comes amid efforts to implement prison and sentencing reforms that led to the release of an estimated 1,900 Louisiana prison inmates this month.

Some of the state’s district attorneys, among them Orleans Parish D.A. Leon Cannizzaro, have expressed resentment and reluctance about being brought into a legal squabble over juvenile lifers.

Cannizzaro told that the state’s Department of Corrections, which oversees the parole board, is better qualified to determine which juvenile murderers should be deemed eligible for parole.

“We’re basically guessing on these cases,” Cannizzaro said. “I think this is an unfair call for the district attorney.”

The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office has reviewed 64 cases involving juvenile murderers — more than any other Louisiana Parish — and has reportedly filed motions in to block parole eligibility in 32 of those cases.

Cannizzaro, who was elected D.A. in 2008, said some of the cases involving juvenile murders in Orleans Parish date back as far as the 1970s and present a major challenge to him as the city’s chief prosecutor.

“We are trying to make the best decision we can without really seeing this person,” Cannizzaro said. “I think it puts an unfair burden on the district attorneys.”

Cannizzaro said that four of his office’s 32 challenges to parole eligibility for juvenile lifers may be dropped because they were filed because the office didn’t have enough information on the juvenile lifer at the time. But he said that the 28 remaining challenges will likely stay because of objections and concerns expressed by victims’ loved ones, survivors of the crime or former prosecutors who tried the cases. reported that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office is also attempting to block parole for any offender who has had a poor disciplinary record in prison.

The Orleans Parish D.A. said that the state’s Department of Corrections is in a better position than district attorneys to determine whether an inmate has matured and changed for the better.

“I do recognize that over the course of time, that a person might change,” Cannizzaro said. reported that the Louisiana District Attorneys Association lobbied during the spring legislative session for the right to block juvenile lifers from gaining parole eligibility, which is the reason it was included in the new law passed by state legislators this summer in Baton Rouge.

The U.S. Supreme Court had already told Louisiana twice in the past five years that its handling of juveniles convicted of murder was not in compliance with federal law.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in a case brought by an Alabama inmate that states had to offer some parole to people convicted of committing murders as juveniles. The high court reasoned that juvenile murderers, in particular, should be granted a shot at being paroled because science has proven that they haven’t fully matured and are more likely to make bad decisions.

Louisiana responded by granting parole eligibility to juvenile lifers convicted of murder after 2012, but not those who were already in prison at the time.

In 2015 the Supreme Court clarified that Louisiana has to grant parole to all juvenile murderers and not just those convicted since 2012.

The Louisiana law governing juvenile lifers was rewritten during the 2017 state legislative session granting offenders a shot at parole beginning on Nov. 1, 2017. provided that they have served 25 years behind bars and meet some other requirements like earning the equivalent of a high school diploma.

After learning that Louisiana district attorneys are seeking to block one-third of juvenile lifers who are qualified for parole eligibility from being considered for release, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights determined that the matter would have to be resolved in federal court.

This article originally published in the November 13, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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