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Elain Ellerbe | August 3, 2017
Parole for geriatric prisoners was left out of the justice reforms package passed this summer. The Justice Reinvestment Task Force included parole eligibility for geriatric prisoners in their list of recommendations, but the legislature decided not to implement it this session. According to the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Team many of the longest serving offenders in the state are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. At the end of 2015, 4,850 people were serving these sentences. Looking back over Louisiana’s use of life without parole sentences, there was a time in the 1970’s when a life sentence meant someone would serve 10 years and then be considered for parole. By the 1990’s new “tough on crime” legislation was rolled out and from then on a life sentence meant for the rest of the person’s life.
The continued statutory changes increasing Louisiana’s use of life sentences was found to be one of the drivers of the prison population and has made Louisiana an outlier in prison growth. Louisiana is one of only two states, Mississippi being the other, that uses mandatory life without parole sentences for second degree murder. Alternatively, other southern states like Texas and Arkansas consider parole for people serving life sentences. Texas punishes people with an 5-99 year sentence, providing parole eligibility after 30 years. Arkansas grants consideration for parole after 10-40 years of a person’s sentence has been served. The Baton Rouge Advocate once again took on this controversial topic in an article that appeared June 11, 2017 right at the end of the Legislative Session.
The article noted that while a small number of life without parole offenders will have their parole eligibility restored through legislation included in the sweeping changes to criminal justice laws during the recent session (130 men convicted in the mid-1970’s), a broader provision for restoring parole consideration for all lifers was stripped. This compromise was one of many required to obtain the District Attorney and Sheriff Associations support for the overall legislative package.
With medical costs for the ever growing elderly prison population reaching $75 million (spent during last fiscal year) and 13.4 percent of Louisiana’s prison population serving life sentences, from a pure economic standpoint, the state cannot continue supporting these expenditures. Likewise, from a public safety standpoint, studies clearly indicate that older, as well as infirmed released offenders, are far less likely to re-offend.
Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc supports this line of thought: “I have inmates in Angola that are in fetal positions, who are paralyzed from the neck down, are in hospice. Their life is over, it’s done, they’re finished. Why do we need to keep them in prison? There’s no reason for that.”
No, there is no reason for sure, and if Louisiana is truly committed to reforming its criminal justice system, geriatric parole must be put back on the table.