Kids in the Adult System
While Louisiana has made great strides in reforming its juvenile justice system, it has not made comparable strides at reducing the number of youth transferred as adults. The 2005 Human Rights Watch report, “The Rest of their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States,” documented that Louisiana has the highest rate of children serving life without parole sentences in the entire country. Louisiana not only has the highest rate, but is virtually off the chart with a rate twice that of the nearest state, Michigan. While 25 states have 10 or fewer youth serving life sentences, Louisiana has well over 300. Recent data provided to CFSC and JJPL by the Louisiana Department of Corrections indicates that since Human Rights Watch published its report, Louisiana now has 228 people sentenced as juveniles, who are serving sentences of life without parole.1
In addition, while JJPL continues to focus on the abolition of life without parole for all juveniles, the Supreme Court decision in Graham v. Florida in May 2010 that the sentence of life without parole for juveniles for non-homicide offenses is unconstitutional creates a particular current need. In Louisiana, both aggravated rape and aggravated kidnapping carry a mandatory sentence of life without parole, probation or suspension of sentence. In addition, since the Graham decision provided relief to anyone under the age of 18 at the time of the offense, 17 year olds had to be added to the numbers previously reported for Louisiana because, under Louisiana law, you are considered an adult at the age of 17 for purposes of criminal charges. In 2010, the Louisiana Department of Corrections identified 48 people who were sentenced to life in prison for an aggravated rape or aggravated kidnapping committed when they were under the age of 18. Many had not seen a lawyer in decades and all but four had no representation.2
In 2008, JJPL partnered with Citizens for Second Chances (CFSC) to end the practice of incarcerating juveniles to life without parole. CFSC is an organization of family members dedicated to giving hope to youth incarcerated for life by abolishing Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) in Louisiana, where an excess of 300 people are serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were under the age of eighteen. CFSC is in its fifth year as an organization, and was catalyzed after the mother of a youth serving forty years in prison was able to obtain sponsorship of a bill during the 2006 Louisiana legislative session that would have provided for parole eligibility to juveniles serving virtual life or life without the possibility of parole. The 2006 bill failed passage. However, outreach efforts in Angola State Penitentiary, where most juveniles serving life without parole are held, brought together approximately thirty family members of these prisoners to work together on this issue. By the legislative session of 2007, CFSC had grown to include over 100 members. Currently, CFSC’s mailing list includes over 350 family members of individuals serving JLWOP. The organization is led by a leadership team of two women who were founding members of the organization, but its work is structured through a tiered system in which members volunteer as regional captains to disseminate information to families statewide.
JJPL, in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, has developed a legal strategy for potential relief. To date, we have filed pleadings on behalf of 20 of the 64 Graham impacted clients. Three of the men have been released; the first three in the nation to be released as a result of the Graham decision). The other seventeen cases are currently being litigated statewide. In addition to the seventeen cases currently being litigated, full implementation of the Graham decision in Louisiana requires filing pleadings and obtaining relief for the remaining 44 Graham impacted clients. All of these pleadings must be filed before May 17, 2011 to avoid any possible time bars or procedural defaults. At the same time, it will be necessary to work at the legislative level to determine what the appropriate sentence will be for juveniles in Louisiana to replace life without parole for aggravated kidnapping and aggravated rape, in order to ensure that the “opportunity for meaningful release” mandated by the Supreme Court is actualized in practice on the ground.
Louisiana, therefore, is in a unique and particularly opportune position for reform. In the area of juvenile justice, the state has taken huge strides forward, and political leaders have affirmed their commitment to a reformed and fair justice system for youth. While we have made significant strides in building support for the end of LWOP for children, coalition building and the expansion of CFSC in recent years, Graham v Florida presents even greater opportunity; to secure immediate relief for a number of individuals currently serving the sentence, and to broaden support for its end as a sentence overall.
For more information please contact Mummi Ibrahim.
- Louisiana Department of Corrections, April 2008. [↩]
- One man was represented by private counsel who has since withdrawn due to the family’s inability to pay. The other three men’s cases were being reviewed by the Innocence Project New York. The Innocence Project cannot litigate Graham relief for these men. [↩]