- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 7, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Nearly all 10 criminal justice proposals backed by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards are now awaiting his signature, while the remaining proposal, which addresses life-without-parole sentences given to teenagers, is one step away from final passage.

The House on Wednesday approved two bills which are focused on easing the financial burdens ex-offenders face when they are released.

Representatives approved changes the Senate had made to a measure to decrease fines, court fees and restitution if such payments would cause a “substantial financial hardship” for former offenders.

Minutes later, legislators gave final passage to a measure that will suspend the accrual of child support obligations while an offender is behind bars and can’t pay.

The Senate then backed a conference committee’s proposal to grant parole eligibility after 25 years to murderers who are serving life sentences for crimes they committed as teenagers. District attorneys would be allowed to seek no-parole sentences for first-degree murderers a judge declares to be among “the worst of the worst.”

The legislation is a compromise and neither side will be “holding a parade” if it passes, said Sen. Dan Claitor, the bill’s sponsor.

The Baton Rouge Republican expressed concern that district attorneys could seek life-without-parole sentences for too many teenagers. The U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled that juveniles should only receive such a sentence in “exceptional circumstances.”

“It will be up to the district attorneys to follow the law and not declare every single person the worst of the worst,” Claitor said.

Sen. Danny Martiny argued that teenagers’ brains aren’t fully developed, making it too difficult to predict whether a teen is truly “irredeemable” at such a young age. Still, he supported the measure.

“This is not what I wanted, but I think we have to come away with something,” Martiny, a Kenner Republican, said.

It’s unclear whether the House will approve the measure. Republican Rep. Sherman Mack, the criminal justice committee chairman, opposes it. Mack, who was part of the conference committee, said the offenders should have to wait 30 years before getting parole eligibility.

Edwards supports the amended bill, said Richard Carbo, the governor’s spokesman.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 struck down automatic no-parole life sentences for crimes committed by someone under the age of 18.

Since then, lawmakers have grappled with how to handle the ruling and have, in many instances, said they are only considering the changes for people convicted for first-degree and second-degree murder because they feel forced by the nation’s highest court.

Under Claitor’s bill, district attorneys would have 90 days to tell a judge if they want to keep parole eligibility away from any of the approximately 300 inmates who are serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles before 2012. Louisiana changed its law that year to allow for parole consideration for people sentenced to life as juveniles after they served 35 years of their sentences and met certain criteria. The change was not applied retroactively.

In the future, district attorneys would have 180 days following an indictment to flag an alleged offender as among the “worst of the worst,” according to the proposal.

Edwards expects these bills, combined with others, to facilitate a 10 percent drop in Louisiana’s prison population over the next decade, resulting in millions of dollars in savings annually.

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House Bills 249 and 680 and Senate Bill 16: www.legis.la.gov

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