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Louisiana Sentences More Juveniles to Life In Prison Than Any Other State in U.S.

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PHOTO:   D. Muhammad,
PHOTO: D. Muhammad,

Louisiana incarcerates more of its natives than any state in the country—that fact is known. But what many on the outskirts of the criminal justice system may not know is how the state handles juvenile offenders. “No state is a worse offender than Louisiana,” said Josh Perry, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, referring to the number of juveniles sentenced to life in prison in the state. Louisiana sends more juveniles to spend the rest of their lives jailed than any state in America.

Criminal justice reform advocates met July 27 at the Zeitgeist Arts Center in Central City to screen “15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story,” a documentary on the life of Kenneth Young, a now 26-year-old man sentenced to four consecutive life sentences in Florida for armed robbery at the age of 14 more than a decade ago. In the film, Young said at the time of his crimes he couldn’t grasp the magnitude of the situation he was facing. “It hadn’t resonated with me. I kept saying, ‘This can’t be true. I ain’t dying in prison.’”

Young’s lack of understanding about the consequences of major crimes is echoed in national research, said District A councilmember, Susan Guidry. Guidry chairs the City Council’s criminal justice committee and described herself at the event as “someone who gets to beat my head against the wall on a daily basis” over how to reform the city’s system of incarceration. Guidry and Perry participated in a panel discussion after the film, both urging audience members to press elected officials and criminal justice leaders to do away with the practice of incarcerating youth in one of the country’s most violent prisons.

Perry said juveniles held in OPP as they await trial are at greater risk for rape and other forms of victimization. Young alluded to the harsh conditions of prison life for young inmates in the documentary. “In all the years I have been incarcerated, I have been in some of the worse prisons in the state of Florida.” Florida holds the bulk of juveniles sentenced to life even after the U.S. Supreme Court barred states from locking away minors for the rest of their lives for offenses short of murder. “Of the 128 juveniles eligible for release,” Perry said, “77 are in the state of Florida. They just haven’t moved on their cases.”

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But in Louisiana, the state has no plans to explore juvenile release, according to Perry, because officials do not believe the 2010 high court ruling should be applied retroactively. “The Supreme Court has decided that kids are different,” Perry said. “We are working to change what’s happening in Louisiana through the courts.” Perry said condemning juveniles to life sentences ignores the ability of their young minds to mature. “If someone steals something, it doesn’t make that person a thief. If someone lies, it doesn’t make them a liar. If someone murders, it doesn’t make them a murderer.” One expert featured in the documentary rhetorically asked, “Are we punishing crimes or are we punishing people?”

Young was convicted in the early 2000s after a string of armed robberies he and an adult accomplice committed at small hotels in Tampa. Seventy percent of children serving life sentences committed their crimes with an adult, according to crime statistics presented in the documentary. But a Florida judge in 2011 was not convinced that Young was influenced by his older accomplice to the extent that his sentence should be reduced, but, given the high court ruling, the judge sentenced Young to serve four concurrent 30-year prison terms, ending his life sentence and making him eligible for release in 2030.

A criminal justice committee budget hearing on youth incarceration is scheduled for August 26.

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