Louisiana HB 254

What it would do

Read here and here.

What you can do

Email the Louisiana House and Senate

Dear Louisiana House/Senate/Legislature,

I am emailing to urge you to oppose HB 254, which would mandate parole hearings for even the most evil juvenile criminals. HB 254 would force victims to repeatedly relive the worst experiences of their lives and would endanger society. It would also deny justice by allowing murderers to live unfettered lives from their early 40s onward while their dead victims can’t. Please oppose or amend HB 254.

House member emails

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Senate member emails

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Letter to Lawmakers

Dear Louisiana House,

We are the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers. We are emailing to urge you to vote against House Bill 254, which would mandate parole hearings for all juvenile criminals, regardless of the nature of the offenses. Not only would this bill re-victimize victims, but it would endanger society and allow some of the most depraved killers in Louisiana to go free. 

Here is some information we believe you must be aware of. 

1. The Supreme Court has never ruled that juvenile life without parole is unconstitutional. In Graham v. Florida, SCOTUS ruled that juveniles could not receive life without parole for non-homicide crimes. In Miller v. Alabama, SCOTUS banned mandatory life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders. Pursuant to Miller, a judge can impose a life without parole sentence on a juvenile murderer so long as they consider youth and mitigating factors beforehand. In Jones v. Mississippi, SCOTUS will determine if a sentencing authority must make an explicit finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing a juvenile killer to life without parole. Even though the Supreme Court has restricted the use of life without parole against juvenile murderers it has never banned juvenile life without parole

2. Some juvenile murderers are culpable enough for life without parole. HB 254 advocates will attempt to minimize crimes committed by juveniles to advance their agenda. They do so by calling the crimes “mistakes” and “errors in judgment” and referring to the offenders as “children.” (Most juveniles who get life without parole were 16 or 17 when they committed their crimes. They were not “children”). But the truth is that some juveniles commit heinous crimes with a complete understanding of the results and with the intention to bring about those results. We will list some examples of juvenile murderers in Louisiana.

  • In 1985, Adam Comeaux, 17, invaded the Alexandria home of Ruby Voiselle Smith, 63. Ruby’s 72-year-old sister Ida, who lived across the street, was spending the night as she often did. Comeaux proceeded to rape Ruby. He beat Ruby and Ida to death with a doorstop. The rapist-murderer was sentenced to death, but his death sentence was overturned after the Supreme Court prohibited the death penalty for intellectually disabled offenders. After Miller v. Alabama, Comeaux got another sentencing hearing and was sentenced to life without parole. His sentence was upheld.
  • Nine young men, four of them juveniles, invaded the home of 82-year-old Rita Rabalais as part of a robbery/gang-initiation ritual in 1994. They kicked and beat her, hit her on the head with a pipe, choked her with wire, and stabbed her with knives from her kitchen. One of the juvenile killers, Cedric Howard, was sentenced to death. His sentence was later reduced to life without parole. 
  • Dale Craig and Zebbie Berthelot, ages 17 and 16, respectively, along with several others, carjacked, kidnapped, and brutally murdered 18-year-old Kipp Gullett in 1992. Craig, who was one week away from his 18th birthday, decided he needed to obtain a car to visit his girlfriend. The criminals kidnapped Kipp at gunpoint from the Louisiana State University parking lot and held him captive in his own Ford Bronco. During his captivity, the LSU freshman cried and pleaded for his life. He offered them money and the truck. He even tried to hide his face with his hands to convince the kidnappers that he would not be able to identify them if they were to release him. But it wasn’t enough. Craig decided to murder Kipp to eliminate him as a witness. The captors drove Kipp to a secluded construction site where they marched him out of his vehicle at gunpoint. Craig shot him three times in the head as he lay on the ground in fetal position. Craig was sentenced to death, but his sentence was later reduced to life in prison.

HB 254 advocates will point to the typical traits associated with youth–impulsivity, immaturity, recklessness, and failure to appreciate consequences. NOVJM does not deny that these traits are common among youth. But that does not mean they are involved in all juvenile crimes. Consider Dale Craig’s murder of Kipp Gullett. The crime was planned. Craig did not fail to appreciate the consequences of his crimes. He knew that a consequence of kidnapping and robbing Kipp was having him tell others about the crimes. So he prevented those consequences by murdering him and eliminating him as a witness. Sentencing decisions should be based on the specific facts of the case and not the general traits associated with youth.

The idea that a 17-year-old does not understand the wrongfulness of terrorizing and executing an innocent young man over a car or murdering an 82-year-old woman is asinine. Life without parole is not a disproportionate sentence for the crimes explained above, especially considering the fact that several of these murderers were previously sentenced to death. Allowing evil murderers to live unfettered lives from their early 40s onward, while their victims rot in graves, is unjust.

3. Parole hearings are traumatic for victims. Many HB 254 proponents will insist that giving callous murderers parole hearings doesn’t really matter, as no parole board will vote to release them. This argument completely disregards the horrific trauma victims endure during the parole process, trauma which they will endure whether or not the offender is released. Parole hearings force victims to relive the crimes and suffer nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, and other horrors. Inflicting this pain onto innocent victims for the purpose of giving a rapist-murderer a chance at freedom is cruel

The retroactive nature of HB 254 renders the bill even crueler. Victims would be forced to endure parole hearings they did not expect or prepare for, increasing the traumatic impact. 

4. HB 254 is dangerous. Unfortunately, recidivism is common among released offenders. A May 2018 U.S. Department of Justice report on state prisoner recidivism followed a sample of over 400,000 prisoners released by 30 states in 2005. Nearly 45% of the released offenders were re-arrested within one year of release.  About 68% were arrested within three years, 79% within six years, and 83% within nine years. According to the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, the three-year recidivism rate in Louisiana is 34.1

On our website, we document nearly 100 examples of dangerous early releases. Given how common recidivism is, mandating parole hearings for all juvenile offenders is extremely dangerous. 

We know that many violent criminals are psychopaths–they are manipulative and have no compassion or remorse. Currently, there is no cure for psychopathy. Making psychopaths parole-eligible, even though it is a scientific fact that they will always remain dangerous, is irresponsible. 

Conclusion

HB 254 is an unjust bill that would re-traumatize victims and endanger society. The negative consequences are not worth it to give evil murderers another chance. 

Thank you for your consideration,

NOVJM

Response to Louisiana Illuminator op-ed

Demario Davis & Stan Van Gundy of the Players Coalition wrote this op-ed arguing for HB 254. Our legislative coordinator’s response is in bold.

Thirty years ago, the United Nations issued the Convention on the Rights of the Child in which it outlined various protections that should be extended to all individuals under 18, including protection from being sentenced to life imprisonment. Yet the United States, which prides itself on guaranteeing all citizens the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, remains the only nation in the world that sentences children to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The US has no international obligation to abolish life without parole (LWOP) for juveniles. And we are not the only country with juvenile LWOP. These lies are debunked on this page

Thankfully, there is momentum toward ending this practice across the country, but Louisiana has a large population of people currently serving life sentences they were handed as children, and in the past eight years has sentenced more children to juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) than any other state.

Adolescent murderers are not “children.” This propaganda language is used to paint a false image of the juveniles who get LWOP as explained here.

The legislation gives every child sentenced to life in prison an opportunity to go before a parole board after 25 years. This does not guarantee release. It simply allows the parole board to decide if someone is fully rehabilitated and can safely re-join the community.

“This does not guarantee release” is a way of avoiding acknowledging the potential consequences of this bill, those potential consequences being the release of several very violent criminals. Yes, a parole hearing doesn’t guarantee release. But the point of  a parole hearing is to determine if the offender should be released. Release is a potential outcome, and one that can be dangerous and harmful to victims. 

We know that parole boards often make mistakes. For some people, the risk of recidivism is too great to even entertain release at a parole hearing. 

The parole board is trained to make these decisions and is very skilled at its job.

Tell that to all the people who have been victimized by paroled criminals.

Many immediately begin to think about public safety. The reality is that there is no public safety benefit to keeping kids behind bars until they die.

It absolutely benefits society to keep dangerous psychopaths in prison. We know that there is no cure for psychopathy and that psychopaths will always remain dangerous. Mandating parole hearings allows psychopaths to manipulate their way out and is terrible policy.

Research uniformly shows that kids age out of crime, especially by the time they reach their late 30s. Their brains develop, and they start to make better choices.

Research also shows that there is no cure for psychopathy, a condition that is characterized by lack of remorse and empathy. 

The types of crimes that result in LWOP are not poor choices made due to under-developed brains. The criminals knew the consequences of their acts yet chose to engage in those acts for their own benefit. Not only that, but in some cases, the juvenile offenders made smart and criminally sophisticated choices. Portraying all juvenile crimes as being the results of immature brains and poor choices is extremely dishonest and inappropriate. 

A Montclair State University study considered the public safety impact of releasing people sentenced to life without parole after they served a good portion of their sentence, and it found a rate of recidivism of only 1%. Many of those released were positively contributing to their communities as leaders, mentors, parents and advocates.

Read this page to learn about juvenile criminal recidivism. 

Since the vast majority of kids can change, the vast majority should have the possibility of a second chance. Exceptions should not define the rule.

Several points. 

1. Those great success stories of former offenders becoming productive citizens are exceptions to the rule. 

2. Murder victims don’t get second chances. 

3. Some juveniles with life and long sentences had extensive criminal histories prior to the crimes that resulted in LWOP and have had second chances and more. 

4. When looking at a categorical ban on a sentence for juvenile criminals we must consider all types of juvenile criminals who would be impacted by the ban.

Individuals under the age of 18 are not fully developed physically, intellectually or emotionally. They are more prone to act based upon peer pressure and are less likely to take consequences into account when making decisions, according to a recent study from the National Institute of Health. For these reasons, we do not allow people younger than 18 to serve on juries, sign a contract or get married without their parents’ permission. The majority of the courts in the United States have also taken these fundamental differences into account with laws around youth sentencing, and it is time for Louisiana to follow suit. Yes, we must all be held accountable for our actions, but to lock away children and throw away the key — with no chance at redemption — is abusive and immoral.

1. Again, not all juvenile crimes result from under-developed brains. Many juvenile criminals are more developed than most other juveniles. 

Not all juvenile crimes involve peer pressure and failure to assess consequences. Many juvenile criminals completely understand the consequences of their actions. 

2. Just because someone is too young to responsibly serve on a jury, decide to get married, and sign a contract does not mean they are too young to understand that murder is wrong. It is much easier to understand the wrongfulness of murder than it is to understand how to weigh evidence as a juror, the complexities of marriage, or the consequences of signing an important contract. Whether or not to kill an innocent person is not a complex moral decision. 

3. It’s not abusive and immoral to give an appropriate punishment to a violent criminal. What is abusive and immoral is the repeated retraumatization of innocent victims. 

HB 254 is supported by case law, science, data, research and people on both sides of the political spectrum. It is good public policy. It gives a second chance to Louisiana’s kids, some of whom were never given a first chance. As parents and residents of the great state of Louisiana, we urge lawmakers to give them mercy and a chance for redemption. We urge them to vote yes on HB 254.

Banning JLWOP is not supported by case law. The Supreme Court has stated that discretionary LWOP for murderers is OK. Not only does abolishing JLWOP go against Supreme Court precedent, but it is bad public policy. There is no way one can honestly say that it’s good policy to allow the most dangerous criminals to manipulate parole boards into releasing them and repeatedly torment victims at parole hearings. 

It gives a second chance to Louisiana’s kids, some of whom were never given a first chance. 

What? The killers didn’t get any chances at all? They wouldn’t be in prison if that were true. It is the victims who got no chances. Kipp Gullett begged for his life as he was being kidnapped and terrorized in his own car. Dale Craig, who was one week away from his 18th birthday, didn’t give Kipp a chance. Craig shot Kipp three times in the head to eliminate him as a witness. 82-year-old Rita Rabalais, who was beaten and stabbed in her own home by a group of nine young men didn’t have a chance. And these are just a couple examples. These victims did nothing wrong yet they were denied second chances due to the attackers’ mercilessness. The criminals had a chance not to commit the crimes. And again, in many cases, the criminals had extensive criminal histories prior to the crimes that resulted in LWOP and had had more than two chances.