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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Juvenile justice reform discussed at screening of They Call Us Monsters

Posted By on Tue, Feb 7, 2017 at 3:40 PM

click to enlarge A scene from They Call Us Monsters.
  • A scene from They Call Us Monsters.

When she was 16, Misty Jenkins made some mistakes. The worst, she said, was getting involved with a boyfriend who ultimately ended up robbing and killing a cab driver.

Jenkins was there when the crime happened, and was found guilty of second-degree murder. Under law at the time, she was sentenced to life in jail, without the possibility of parole.

“I kind of shut down after that, for quite a few years,” Jenkins told a packed audience at a community forum Feb. 6. “I didn’t feel like there was any hope for me left.”

Jenkins and others who had previously been sentenced to life without parole as children told their stories at a forum presented by The Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition, a network of organizations whose staffing is provided in part by the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (LCCR).

The anecdotes were told at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center following a screening of the film They Call Us Monsters, a documentary that follows three boys facing extreme prison sentences.

Jenkins was released after she won a post-conviction appeal, but experts said her story served as a reminder of how easily a life can be ruined at a time when scientists say people are more impulsive and less able to weigh consequences than they are as adults.

To this day, there are hundreds of people still in jail who were handed life sentences as youth in Louisiana, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional in all but the rarest cases. According to Jill Pasquarella, an attorney at LCCR, Louisiana gives more children life without parole per capita than any other state.

More than 300 men and women are serving life without parole in Louisiana prisons after being sentenced as a juvenile, Pasquarella said.

And the practice still continues, she said, despite several decisions that have declared the harshest penalties for youth to be unconstitutional because they violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Two of the most significant of those rulings were Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court case which forbade mandatory life without parole for juveniles convicted of any offenses, even murder. and Montgomery v. Louisiana, which applied Miller’s rules retroactively.

Yet, according to statistics Pasquarella cited, provided by the Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition, since 2012 youth charged with serious offenses have been given life without parole 81 percent of the time.

“That’s, I think, not adequate,” Pasquarella told the audience at the forum. “There’s potential for children to be much more than the crimes they committed.”

To change those numbers, she and others are calling for what advocates refer to as “common-sense” juvenile justice reform during the 2017 legislative session in Louisiana.

For one, advocates ask that Louisiana allows youth the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed by a parole board after serving a “significant” sentence. The Youth Justice Coalition estimates that releasing rehabilitated children on supervised parole after serving 20 years, for example, could save the state $117 million.

Similarly, the coalition is advocating that legislature repeal mandatory sentencing for youth tried in juvenile court, and instead give discretion back to judges.

Advocates also ask that Louisiana create safety standards for state-run juvenile secure care facilities, including a ban on solitary confinement, which the coalition calls “psychologically ruinous” to youth.

Finally, the group is asking for lawmakers to improve juvenile expungement laws, to diminish barriers between education, employment and housing after being released from jail.

Not everyone has been thrilled with proposals made by youth justice advocates in New Orleans. Both Democrats and Republicans over the summer rejected a proposal that would allow those who had been sentenced to life in the past to go to parole boards after serving 30 years.

The rejected bill also would have eliminated future life sentences for juveniles convicted of second-degree murder, which was the most common charge for teens who receive that sentence.

Members of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association had scoffed at the idea of taking the decisions to impose life sentences away from judges. State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, too, had said that the bill was too lenient to be passed.

“Maybe we can look at it next year," she said in June.

According to the Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition, however, the longer the state waits to implement reform, the higher the costs will be to taxpayers.

Those include $17 million in sentencing hearings required now for the roughly 300 retroactive cases that need to be re-examined under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, as well as prosecution costs of re-litigating cases.

George Toca and Jerome Morgan, two speakers who said they served decades behind bars for crimes they never even committed, said current policies in Louisiana have a much higher, human cost.

“I was going through a whirlwind of just nightmares,” Morgan said about his time spent behind bars, before the Innocence Project New Orleans ultimately helped convince a court of his innocence.

Toca agreed.

“It just shaped your life,” he said. “And defined life…and for some, just destroyed it.”

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