Law covering La. juveniles invalid; officials consider impact
BY JOE GYAN JR.
Advocate staff writer
June 26, 2012
A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that states, including Louisiana, cannot automatically impose life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles in murder cases.
The high court, in a 5-4 decision, said judges must consider the defendant’s youth and the nature of the crime before putting him behind bars with no hope for parole.
A second-degree murder conviction in Louisiana carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence. Prior to Monday’s ruling, that penalty also applied to juveniles tried as adults in the state and found guilty of second-degree murder.
The Supreme Court’s opinion does not say whether its ruling applies only to future sentences, or whether it could give a new hearing to the more than 2,000 prisoners who are serving life terms for earlier murders.
Bob Noel, president of the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he believes the decision will have a retroactive impact. Noel said he expects to see petitions filed by inmates who have served many years in prison after being convicted as juveniles and sentenced to mandatory life.
Mike Mitchell, the chief public defender in East Baton Rouge Parish, was quick to applaud the ruling while arguing that juveniles are “not fully developed.”
“They (juveniles) are able to be rehabilitated and should have the opportunity at rehabilitation,” he said.
Pete Adams, executive director of the Baton Rouge-based Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said the association was still studying and analyzing the decision Monday afternoon.
“We’re going to consider how to implement this,” he said, noting that the Louisiana Legislature this year decided that juveniles — previously convicted of crimes such as aggravated rape and aggravated kidnapping and sentenced to mandatory terms of life in prison without parole — should be eligible to request parole after serving 30 years in prison.
That particular legislative action was in response to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in which the justices said life terms with no parole are unconstitutional for juveniles who commit crimes short of murder.
Several years before that, in 2005, the high court abolished the death sentence for those under 18 who are convicted of first-degree murder.
Noel said Monday’s ruling was no surprise and called it a “natural progression” based on some of the high court’s recent decisions involving juvenile offenders.
“We could see the handwriting on the wall,” he said.
Noel said the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers intends to lead the push for the appropriate enabling legislation to be passed in Louisiana to address the Supreme Court’s most recent pronouncement.
“What is the criteria for a judge denying someone parole eligibility?” he asked.
Noel said another question will be at what point does a juvenile become parole eligible.
“That’s going to be the big fight,” he said. “We’re looking forward to the challenges ahead.”
Noel did caution that “just because you’re parole eligible doesn’t mean you’re paroled.”
Nevertheless, NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer Benjamin Todd Jealous called Monday’s decision a “big step forward for the American justice system.”
“When it comes to juveniles, life sentences without possibility of parole indeed constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” he said. “Judicial discretion is extremely important in these cases, but the NAACP will continue to fight until the sentences are banned outright.”
The NAACP says African-American children are 10 times more likely than their white peers to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“We remain concerned that racial disparities will continue to be evident as courts exercise discretion in making this assessment,” Jealous said. “If past sentencing is any guide, this most severe sentence may remain all too common for children of color.”
The Supreme Court, in its decision, struck down as cruel and unusual punishment the laws in about 28 states, including Louisiana, that mandated a life term for those under age 18.
The justices ruled in the cases of two 14-year-olds, one in Alabama and the other in Arkansas, who were given life terms for their role in a homicide, but their decision goes further. It applies to all those under 18. It does not automatically free any prisoner, and it does not forbid life terms for young murderers.
“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Kagan.
One of the four dissenters was Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who wrote, “Put simply, if a 17-year old is convicted of deliberately murdering an innocent victim, it is not unusual for the murderer to receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole.” Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined in dissent.
The majority, however, argued that states had not necessarily intended to impose life terms on juvenile offenders. Instead, they passed laws that allowed juveniles to be sentenced as adults for serious crimes. And they also passed laws that set life in prison without parole as the required punishment for murder.
Kagan wrote that “we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”