Criminal Justice

Louisiana Inmates Serving Unconstitutional Sentences Will Have to Keep Waiting for Relief

Louisiana state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson just blocked a bill that would have provided relief to those sentenced as children to life without parole.



Yesterday, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, a Democrat representing Louisiana's District 5, blocked a bill that would have allowed people sentenced as children to life in prison without the possibility of parole—essentially death without execution—to become eligible for parole after serving 30 years behind bars and meeting certain other requirements. Why would a democratic senator let the clock run out on a bill that sailed through the Louisiana House (82-3) with bipartisan support and would likely have seen a similar vote in the Senate? Petty politics, of course. 

According to Julia O'Donoghue of the Times-Picayune, Peterson actively blocked the juvenile-parole bill as retribution for House members failing to vote on a construction budget bill that was backed by the Senate. Now a vote on the measure, House Bill 264, will have to wait indefinitely, as the regular legislative session has run out.

HB 264, sponsored by Representative Sherman Mack (R-Livingston), would have made Louisiana compliant with two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases. In 2012, the Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without the possibility of parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. Earlier this year, the Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller case should be applied retroactively to minors sentenced before 2012.

It's estimated that approximately 300 inmates could have been eligible for parole through the passage of the Louisiana bill. That means there are currently 300 inmates who were essentially sentenced to die in prison for crimes they committed when they were kids—something the U.S. Supreme Court has determined to be a form of "cruel and unusual" punishment. But because of Peterson's petty politics, they'll have to keep waiting for relief until a bill is passed and signed by Governor Edwards. Perhaps that will happen if a special session is called, perhaps they'll have to wait until next year.

According to Ben Cohen, of counsel for the Promise of Justice Initiative, Peterson's actions will result in a wave of new litigation because Louisiana still is not compliant with the recent Supreme Court decisions. This litigation will come with additional costs and uncertainty.

Cohen wrote in an email, "I think the idea that this will be fixed some day in the future, either by the state courts, the United States Supreme Court, or at next year's legislative session—it derives from the perverse view that people serving an unconstitutional sentence of life without parole at Angola, should be happy with whatever they get, should accept a second class justice. When I think about the people I know serving that sentence, that unconstitutional sentence, each day is an injustice. And today, I think Senator Peterson is responsible for that."  

It's times like these where it's important to remember that being awful on criminal-justice issues can be a bipartisan issue, too.

This post has been updated since publication.